The Georgian period encompassed the reigns of George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60), George III (1760-1820) and George IV (1820-30) giving the period its name.
During this period a number of different architectural styles can be seen:
A style of architecture seen in Europe which is attributed to Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580). Palladian architecture is the epitome of symmetry, perspective and classical forms and is heavily influenced by Ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Palladio’s interpretation of classical architecture gave the style its name.
A lighter and less expensive style than Palladian which became popular in the middle of the Georgian period. It was developed in Paris and was asymmetrical and ornate in design using curves, pastel colours and gold. It was considered more playful in design often used to decorate entire rooms with ornate furniture, objects and reliefs.
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A style which reflects its Chinese influences where objects, furniture, wallpaper etc. was depicted with images of what was considered Chinese. These elements were often mixed with Rococo.
Towards the end of the Georgian period styling started to move away from Palladian and Rococo towards Neo Classical. Emphasis was given to straight lines and logically ordered forms seen in classical elements from Greece and Rome.
During this period Britain was considered to be the “world’s leading naval power”. There were also developments in farming and the Industrial Revolution.
The Georgian period was one of great extremes, there was the landed gentry with large luxurious stately homes and extreme poverty resulting in violence and crime in a bid to survive. Corruption scandals were widespread amongst public officials and Politician’s as they exploited their positions of power to acquire more power and wealth.
Travel had an enormous influence on Georgian design and architecture. The Grand Tour popular amongst landed gentry and architects in training meant they were exposed to Palladian and Classical forms within buildings, furniture and decorative arts. The Georgians admired the discipline and clarity of Palladian architecture and the sense of proportion, order and symmetry appealed to the travellers who brought their findings back to Britain and influenced 18th century architecture and interior design.
Examples of this can be seen at Shugborough Hall, Hagley Hall and Spencer House.
Each architect had their own distinct approach but their designs were all heavily influenced by classical Rome and Greece. James Stuart, Sir William Chambers and Robert Adam played a major role in popularizing the classical style, developing the notion of a unified interior design. It was not uncommon for the architect to also design furniture.
Whilst travel to Europe was popular and common amongst the aristocrats there was little knowledge about what was Chinese, Indian or Japanese but they managed to influence British taste and decoration. Images of peonies and chrysanthemums were used in the fabric and Chinese porcelain and table lamps were common. Georgian furniture was heavily influenced by the Palladian and classical design. These influences meant rooms and clothes became lighter and the range of colours used in decoration widened especially in the private lives of ladies bedrooms, dressing rooms and drawing rooms. Interiors became comfortable, intimate, private and informal through the influence of women.
Britain sailed around the world buying tea, textiles, gold and spices from China and India and tobacco, cotton and sugar from North America and the Caribbean. Items were taken to ports in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow for distribution.
British manufactured items; wool, cloth, guns and iron tools were shipped to West Africa in return for slaves. By the 1790s there were c400,000 slaves transported and sold to work on plantations. As British people started to hear about the cruel realities of slavery pressure mounted to end the trade which eventually resulted in slavery being abolished in Britain and throughout its colonies.
Trade expanded quickly, resulting in British owners of commercial ships, factories and plantations becoming exceptionally wealthy.
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Wars were fought over the ownership of colonial land in Indian and America between Britain and France. “Fighting also took place in Europe with Britain, Hanover and Prussia on one side, against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Spain on the other.”
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The Industrial Revolution introduced advances in the textile industry. Machines were invented and techniques altered making the production of cloth quicker. The flying shuttle improved the efficiency and speed of the loom and also enabled broader cloth to be produced. Developments were also made in a bid to automate machines using water wheels to drive the weaving looms allowing for mass production. The size and cost of the new machines meant they prohibited home use and factories were required which were funded by wealthy businessmen.
Advances in manufacturing resulted in carpets becoming more affordable to the middle classes who used them in the parlour room as a rug placed in the centre.
Other industries developed in a similar manner resulting in factories being built around the country, in particular in the north of England where there were fast flowing rivers to power the water wheels.
Unable to compete with these new industries traditional craftsmen were forced to find employment in the factories. Changes to the way land was divided for farming and the creation of larger enclosed fields which were rented at higher premiums and agricultural developments left some farmers unemployed and the traditional country way of life and communities started to decline.
The Industrial Revolution also brought about larger towns which were built around factories and expansions in the banking system and increasing foreign trade.
British businesses and manufacturing also prospered following enhancements to transportation. At the start of the Georgian period most roads were dirt tracks. To fund the development of proper roads tolls were collected from those who used them, which also funded the repair and maintenance of the roads. By improving the roads it reduced travel time, in 1720 the journey between London and Manchester would take 3 days but by 1770 this was reduced to 1 day.
The development of a canal network across Britain enabled goods and raw materials to be transported around the country which supported the British trade boom.
In 1804 the first steam-powered train to run on rails was produced by Richard Trevithick. Building on his work George Stevenson built the first public stream railway and designed an engine to carry coal trucks and passenger wagons. These developments led to the expansion of the railway across Britain during the 19th century.
Following the expiry of the Licencing Act in 1695 and the control on publishing being lost by the London Stationers’ Company newspapers, books and advertising flourished. Modern fashion magazines and an interest in botanical illustrations and gardens became popular, influencing interiors.
In the late 1730s and 1740s publications detailing printed designs for furniture started to be produced enabling replicas to be made of classic intricate designs. Chippendale was at the forefront resulting in many of his designs being copied.
The enhancements made to the transport infrastructure and manufacturing processes resulted in a rapid growth in shopping. Browsing and purchasing goods became a national pastime and fashionable shops opened in elegant neighbourhoods where shopping in them was seen as a sign of status.
The popularity also extended to poorer neighbourhoods where it too was seen as a social activity.
The Industrial Revolution provided mass-produced, cheaper items making them available to the working class and may have played a part in what became popular.
The growth in factories and trade resulted in the merchants and factory owners becoming wealthier. This increase in income not only enabled them to live a more lavish lifestyle they became members of a new ‘middle class’ where they sought to live in a house that matched their growing status.
As the rich were getting richer they invested more in their homes and demand for stylish town houses led to the transformation and development of many cities such as Edinburgh, London and Bath.
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Owning a town house was the first stage to becoming a reputable city resident. The next stage was the manner in which it was furnished. The Georgian ideals of taste and style were decisively defined and anything which did not comply could ruin the image of cultured sophistication.
Georgian’s fondness of symmetry and elegant facades resulted in houses being built as terraces which gave the appearance of a unified architectural design and a grand stately home on approach but was modest in size. The design also addressed the need to build large amounts of properties to cope with the rise in population. The properties were built in straight lines, crescent or in squares often with a central garden. Consideration was also given to the surrounding areas of the new builds resulting in carefully planned streets and parks allowing horse drawn carriages to pass more easily.
The properties were often developed by wealthy landowners who then rented out the houses to the upper and newly-wealthy middle class. Architects were hired to develop the plans and in some cases such as the Adams brothers, they went on to become developers.
The Building Acts which came into force, initially in London, outlined the standards for construction which altered the appearance of city housing.
The terraced townhouses were generally four stories tall, made of brick or stone with a sloping roof and accessed via a short flight of stairs. The dividing walls were built using thick brick to reduce the risk of fire spreading and to carry the weight of chimney stacks. The internal layout and decoration often reflected that of the upper classes but on a much reduced scale.
To bring in more light the houses were built with large sash windows which varied in height depending on the floor located on but were generally the same width. Until further developments were made in the production of large sheet glass the windows were comprised of smaller panes.
There was also the need for cheaper housing leading to overcrowded and dirty slums where many of the factory workers lived due to their minimal wages. Some families lived in single rooms with no sanitation or fresh air. Back to back terraces and through terraces were also built for the skilled workers, often built using lower quality materials. Toilets would have been located outside and domestic functions began to be separated from living areas.
Fashion and interiors
The Georgians took a great interest in fashion and interiors. This was enhanced through the availability of design and architectural books to the general public.
As the century progressed, the style became lighter and lighter in terms of colours and decoration and eventually became the Regency style.
Picture collecting as a design feature increased in popularity, examples of which can be seen in Harewood House and Kedleston Hall, which may have contributed to the decline in intricate painted ceilings as they distracted from the pictures being displayed. It may also have contributed to the move away from panelling as they were a difficult background to hang pictures on, encouraging the preference for walls hung with fabric. Where panelling was still used it was often reserved for below the dado rail. Bold damask was popular, made from mixed fabric in drawing rooms or galleries rather than velvet which was easily damaged. As the production standards improved for wallpaper it became a popular choice, but for many was considered to be a luxury item.
The use of panelling continued in ordinary houses and was often painted in a stone colour, whilst doors and skirting were painted in dark brown.
The grandest of homes moved towards flatter and lighter decorative elements with a more restrained feel.
Decoration and furniture
The design of houses varied depending on the social class. Stately homes and large houses were split across a number of floors. The main floor of the house was called the ‘piano nobile’ and was used for formal entertainment and socialising. It had large windows and was lavishly decorated and furnished designed for maximum impact on visitors. A beautiful example of this is the Saloon at Saltram House designed by Robert Adam. Rooms considered to be working areas of the house were not decoratated.
Family bedrooms were located on the upper floors and the utility and servant areas were located in the attics and basement.
The entrance hall in Osterley House demonstrates the use of decorative elements - skirting, cornices, dado and architraves. Ornamental plasterwork was used to decorate ceilings and cornices and enabled structural joints to be hidden whilst adding embellishment to the room. Ribbons, swags, egg and dart, acanthus leaves, shells, scrolls and classical or mythological figures were popular. Examples of this can be seen at Houghton Hall. Developments in the range of materials and techniques such as papier mache allowed decorative elements to be available to the middle classes. Improvements in wallpaper resulted in it becoming more popular in principal rooms as well as bedrooms, often replacing wall hangings.
Drawing on classical influences doors were often surrounded by classical columns and above the door would be an elaborate fanlight window.
The saloon and parlour at Houghton Hall demonstrates how fireplaces, doorways, ceilings and the style of furniture mirrored the architecture and was detailed, elegant and sophisticated. Furniture such as tables, chairs, sofas, cabinets and sideboards were made from expensive wood with simple shaped thin legs. The wood was carved and coverings or cushions depicted classical patterns in subtle colours or were upholstered in velvet or damask. Influences came from Asia as travel progressed resulting in darker backgrounds with gold overlaid and oriental scenes represented. One sign of wealth was the amount and quality of furniture and fabric.
The furniture was often produced by an individual craftsmen, the most notable being Thomas Chippendale, whose patterns were often copied by other manufacturers. The upholsterer and cabinet maker influenced the way interiors were designed and decorated as their work developed beyond woodwork. The furniture ranged in styles; complicated curved items, classical influenced pieces and those with simple straight lines, a key factor on the choices selected was the level of wealth.
Furniture started to be imported from other countries such as China and France. Mahogany started to be imported replacing walnut which used to be the main wood used for furniture.
Depending on the style and status of the house floors may have had stained or polished wooden floorboards covered with oriental rugs or a floor cloth, which was less expensive and in grander houses stone or marble floors.
As the Georgian period developed colour schemes moved away from burgundy, sage green and blue grey towards lighter softer colours such as pea green, sky or Wedgwood blue, soft grey, dusky pink, stone and flat white demonstrated in the Parlour, 1745 and 1790, at the Geffrye Museum, London. Woodwork was often painted white, chocolate brown or olive and halls and staircases in a durable cheap stone colour. Touches of gilding were used depending on the status of the owner but reserved more for picture frames and woodwork than embellishment seen in previous periods. The amount of decoration and choice of colour was also influenced by how often a room was used and if it was a more public room where expressing ones status was important. Crimson for example was considered a grand colour.
Marble was often used on chimneypieces which was then used as the table top on pier-tables making it a central element of the colour scheme adopted.
Paraffin revolutionised Georgian lighting, prior to that the number of candles required to light the room may have dictated the decoration.