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How to Bring the Aesthetic Sense of the Victorian Era Into the Present

Updated on January 7, 2018

Victorian Styles

The term "Victorian" properly refers to the period during the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901). However, it is often used to generically describe the 1900s and the early part of the twentieth century. This is a rather large span of time and encompasses a number of recognizable styles that can all be refered to as Victorian.

Georgian, 1790-1831:The period prior to the Victorian era that includes the early part of the nineteenth century. Plants and animal themes were popular. This style enjoyed a revival around the beginning of the twentieth century.

Eastlake, 1870-1900: Named for a designer of the period who was tired of the flamboyance of earlier victorian design. His designs were simplified but still considerably more florid than those that came with the Arts and Crafts movement and later styles.

Victorian, 1837-1901: The Victorian Era as a whole is characterized by a romanticism in all areas of the arts. Visual arts, music and literature all showed a strong concern with feeling. Victorian designs are typically highly ornamental. Floral and other natural designs were very popular. Rooms often mixed several complimentary prints in wallpapers and fabrics. This became less common toward the end of the era. Many colors were used but they were often somewhat less saturated than those used in later periods.

Clothing styles were also decorative with the hour-glass figure considered the feminine ideal. Corsets were generally worn to achieve this figure. Later in the century and into the Edwardian era, "tight lacing" became more common and brought with it many health problems.

Art Nouveau, 1895-1905: An art movement defined largely by the work of Alphonse Mucha, the Art Nouveau style found its way into the design of many household items; notably, furniture, lamps, clocks, jewelry, wallpaper and carpeting. This style made heavy use of stylized natural forms. Elegantly curving vines and floral motifs were common. Women with long, flowing hair and dresses were often to be found in Art Nouveau style pieces such as paintings, sculpture and clocks. Classical themes were quite popular as they were throughout much of the nineteenth century.

Edwardian (1901-1915)The death of Queen Victoria, obviously, marked the end of the Victorian Era proper. The designs of that period, however, continued to be popular. Lace and filigree were favorites in the Edwardian period.

Arts & Crafts, 1905-1935: Notable in this style were designers and architects such as William Morris, Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright. (The border on the left hand side of these pages is a Morris design.) The style emphasized simple, functional designs with straight lines and angular forms. It also favored hand-made work over machine-made.

Art Deco, 1920-1935: Characterized by clothing designer Erté and painters like Tamara DeLempika the Art Deco movement frequently used long sharp lines and bright colors. Similar to the Arts and Crafts movement which was happening at the same time, much of the Art Deco style was very angular. The influence of the Art Nouveau style was still evident in some typography and the use of natural motifs.

Design Principles

The first principal that I use in decorating is: If you can't use it, it's crap. The simple fact that something is a genuine antique from the nineteenth century does not make it useful. If authenticity is what you're after, keep in mind that articles in the nineteenth century (or earlier) were new at that time. So it stands to reason that you should endevor to use articles that are in good condition.

Second, please show a modicum of consistency. In point of fact it is not really the ninteenth century. That means that you will have at your disposal articles from every time period up to this point. It occurs to me that some of the things that our forebears used fell into disuse for a reason. For example, gas lighting was dangerous and dip-pens were rather cumbersome to use. It is, therefore, highly likely that a modern home, albeit decorated in a generally victorian style, will have numerous modern accoutrements. There is nothing wrong with that, but try to keep in mind the style of the rest of the house. Whenever possible, try to find modern articles that correspond in some way to victorian sensibilities.

A contemporary electric stove, for example, may be available in a color that would be suitable to the 1800s. If you find the sofas and chairs of the ninteenth century unsuitable to your derierre, then at least find modern ones of the same general shape and with a suitable style of upholstery.

On the other hand, style in the nineteenth century, like that of today, was not monolithic. For example, people were as interested in antiques then as they are now. People also inherited things just as they do now. So it would not be uncommon to find a nineteenth century home with a large number of articles from previous eras. What makes a home victorian may be more a matter of accessories than furniture.

If you look long enough, you will find a number of articles from the 1800s that look as if they could have been made in our own day. Straight lines and simple surfaces were not completely unheard of amidst the generally florid decorations of the nineteenth century. Given that, it needn't destroy the victorian feel of your home to bring in a few items of modern design. Remember that you are designing a home, not a museum. The idea is not to deprive yourself of things that bring you happiness. Just give some reasonable consideration to whether the thing you're thinking about buying will add to your enjoyment of your overall atmosphere or detract from it.

Resources

Your Local Library

In a library of any size you are sure to find books on victorian decoration on the shelves. Even in a small library you can get books through inter-libary loan. It is a good choice to do as much research as possible before investing a large sum of money.

Check the library's magazine rack too. There are a number of home decorating magazines that could prove useful. A few that specialize in the victorian era are listed further down this page.

Your Grandparents' Attic

Or your parents or other relatives... You might be surprised what you find in there. For example, many families have boxes of old photographs (like, tintype old) which, given an appropriate frame and a prominent position in your home, would add a very authentic victorian feel. Plus it's really a relative of yours. People go to antique stores and buy old pictures of strangers to achieve this effect.

The only caveat here is to beware of the sentimental value that these things might have. It may seem silly to you to leave that beautiful tea set in the attic in a box but if it's going to cause a rift in the family when your dog knocks it off the table and chips a glass it's better to forget you ever saw it. Make sure there aren't going to be hard feelings if something gets damaged.

Historical Museums

Your local Historical Society (and even the smallest of towns have them) will be likely to have photographs and other resources from the period you are researching.

Living history museums like Mumford, New York's Genesee Country Museum exist to preserve the past. They often maintain libraries or bookstores with books about decorationg, gardening, dress and other facts about the periods they record. These museums often have classes on topics of the period. See if you can get on the mailing list for these. They are often less expensive for members.

The people who work in museums generally are not getting rich there. They do what they do because of a genuine interest. Therefore, you can usually expect them to be quite knowledgeable and willing to share what they know. If you get a chance to work at one of these museums it can be quite a learning experience, though as I said, you won't get rich.

Obviously, don't forget to look at the buildings themselves. If possible, take pictures. If not, sketch anything you think you won't remember. Take notes. Museum gift shops often sell period appropriate items.

Antique Stores

There are two types of stores that may bear the word "Antiques" on the outside. Know the difference. They are:

Antiques Stores: These actively seek out high quality items. You can rely on the people in reputable stores to assist you in your search for period appropriate articles and most of the things you will be offered in such a store will be in useable condition. On the other hand, you are probably going to pay a premium for this. Check out the book shelves in these stores too. You may be able to find books on decorating from the period you are after.

Junk Shops: These stores are full of old stuff. It may be of some quality but probably not. The people who run these places, as a rule, know nothing about antiques and will be of no help to you. In fact, their uninformed advisement will probably lead you into decorating disaster if you let it. Do your homework and use your own judgement. You want to have firmly in mind design principle number one when you walk in the door of one of these shops. Some people have the innate ability to pick the rose out of a crowd of thorns. Look deep within yourself and ask if you are one of these people. If not, you might want to avoid places like this.

Department/Furniture Stores

There is a fairly large market for victorian reproductions or reasonable facsimilies thereof. As a result, you will probably be able to find something useful in almost any department store or furniture store. If you want to be a stickler for historical authenticity then you will really need to do your homework before you go shopping. The people in these stores will probably be willing to help but they are not likely to be knowledgeable about the specific period you're looking for.

Although you will almost certainly get high quality wares in these stores, you will also pay for them. Don't overlook furniture stores for accessories like vases and decorative plates. They often have very good period reproductions at reasonable prices.

Discount Stores

On rare occasion it is possible to find articles of fairly high quality in places like Wal-Mart. In this case they will probably be far less expensive than their department store counterparts. As with the Junk Shops it will be necessary to let your taste be your guide.

Some good bets for discount stores are:

  • Silk flowers
  • Fabric and other craft materials
  • Candles
  • Bedding
  • Window treatments
  • Throw pillows
  • Stencils and Needlework patterns

Fabric/Craft Stores

These can be treasure troves both for creating new items and refurbishing old ones. Fabric, pre-made fringes and tassles and the like can be used to add a victorian flair to modern articles. These store often carry instructional books that can give you ideas or tell you how to successfully complete a project you've been thining about. There is, however, going to be a lot of junk in there. Let your taste be your guide.

Victorian projects

Pictures and Frames

One of the fastest amd least expensive ways to add victorian flair to a home is with pictures. Almost everybody has plenty of pgotographs tuicked away in boxes. Photography was a novelty in the early victorian period, having only been invented in 1839. By the turn of the century it had become reasonably commonplace.

Photography and, earlier, portrait painting fit well with the victorian idealisation of the family. Decorative frames of reasonably good quality in gold and silver leaf or pewter (none of these are necessarily genuine but they look good) are quite readily available in discount or home decorationg stores. They tend to hover around $10-$20 but can be had for less if you look for sales. Hallmark stores have been carrying a wide variety of sizes and styles that are quite suitable.

Good places for varied groups of framed pictures are piano tops, tables, desks and mantles. Lace doilies underneath add to the effect and can be found at craft stores for a few dollars each.

Lamps and Light Fixtures

Lighting is one of the areas where the influence of the victorian and (somewhat later) arts and crafts movements has been the most enduring. A large variety of lighting that is appropriate to the victorian era is available at department stores, discount stores and specialty lighting stores. It is, however, well worth your while to search the antique stores first. Lamps can often be found in good condition and at much lower costs. You may have to purchase shades seperately, though this can be to your advantage.

The nineteenth century was a time of great technological change. At the beginning of the era, oil lamps or tallow candles were the norm. As the century progressed people moved to kerosene, gas and, finally, electricity.

Initially, oil lamps were brought out only when it got dark and spent the day out of sight in closets or cabinets. Only later as gas and electricity became the norms did lamps become permanent features of a room's decor.

The first gas lamps were much like oil lamps, with the flame burning up. Later, a method was developed for burning gas downward with a mantle such as is found today in propane camp lanterns. This design gave greater illumination and allowed more flexibility in lighting design.

Throughout the 1800s it was quite common to design lamps after the style of other things. For example, a great many lamps from this era look like statues or vases and, indeed, many of these items were converted into lamps. It is certainly possible to convert statuary, vases and other articles for use as victorian-style lighting. The kits to do so are available at larger craft stores or through mail-order (look in woodworking magazines for businesses that provide these sorts of things).

As long as gas lighting was used the need existed to get a gas line to the light. As electricity started to become available, combination gas/electric lighting was used because the electric supply could be out for long periods of time. This presented the same need as the old gas-only lighting. Even after electricity came into common use it wasn't until around 1915 that cloth covered wire was available. As a result of all this, it was necessary during most of the nineteenth century to have a tube of some sort running from the gas/electric supply all the way to the light source. Lighting was not chain-hung until the early twentieth century.

Glass globes and shades were very common in the victorian era as they were able to stand up to the heat of the flames in pre-electric lighting. They remained popular even after electricity became common. On some earlier lighting and much electric lighing paper and cloth shades were popular. These were variously shaped and were often ornamented with fringes, tassles, painting and so forth. Reproduction shades in these styles are widely available at lighting stores thought they tend to be costly. Less expensive shades, available at department and discount stores can be decorated with lace, fringes and other trimmings from craft stores to give them a victorian flair.

Walls and Woodwork

There are a number of ways to victorianize your walls and woodwork. What you do will be determined by the amount of money and time that you wish to spend as well as the particular period that you are trying to emulate.

The simplest treatment of these things is to paint. Peeling paint on lime green walls is definately not victorian. Even if it's not quite that bad, your decor can usually benefit from a coat of paint.

Many paint shops carry color charts that are specifically intended for period homes. You can also check libraries or bookstores for compendiums of period colors that can then be matched by many paint shops.

It was not at all uncommon to find a number of complimentary colors on one wall during the nineteenth centuries. In general, darker colors were used toward the floor, moving toward lighter colors higher up on the wall. Wallpaper borders may be used to separate colors.

Earlier in the century it was popular to use multiple wallpaper patterns on the same wall. They would, of course, have similar color schemes. The botton section of the wall would be covered in one pattern, typically darker. The top would be covered with another pattern. The two would often be separated by a border of wallpaper or a wooden molding. Toward the turn of the century this look declined in favor of simpler walls with one or two colors of paint (or a single pattern of wallpaper), perhaps still separated by a molding or wallpaper border.

Decorative moldings were very popular throughout the victorian era. Fairly simple moldings can be found in pine or hardwoods at most lumber yards. The price will vary with the complexity and type of wood. Simple pine moldings should be relatively affordable. These can be used with wallpaper as described above or, for a look reminiscent of the late victorian era, with different shades of paint. Run the molding a few inches from the tops of the doors. Paint the section above a lighter color than the section below.

Walls in the victorian era were often thought of as an area to display pictures, wall lamps and other decorative fixtures. No matter what the treatment, care should be taken to create a wall surface that will be complimentary to any decorations that will ultimately be displayed there.

Artwork

Now that your walls are in decent shape they're a great place to dispaly artwork The nineteenth century was a fairly diverse period, artistically. The styles at the beginning of the century were fairly straightforward. Portraiture, landscapes, battle or sea scenes were all common and tended to be rendered in a technically tight, realistic manner. Scenes from mythology, principally Greek, became quite popular later on. Religious themes were common throughout the era as they had been previously.

The invention of the camera had a great impact on artists of the middle to late victorian era. It was now possible to record likenesses on glass and tin plates or, later, film in a fraction of the time it took to paint a portrait and with greater accuracy. Faced with their own obselecence, artists began to look for new purposes for art.

The impressionists, for example, focussed mostly on the impression given by the light and color of a scene without attempting to capture minute details. Vincent VanGogh's works were highly stylized and used color and the texture and movement of the paint strokes as their main compositional elements. Pablo Picasso turned to cubism. Others like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Maxfield Parrish continued to work in more traditional styles.

Obviously, to be the most authentic you have to buy original victorian era artwork. Equally obviously, this is out of the question for most of us. Fortunately, prints are available of a wide variety of appropriate artwork.

The usual method of hanging an art print is to mat it under glass in a frame. If you want a reasonably authentic victorian effect, this is not the look you want. The frame, of course, is quite appropriate. The mat and glass, however have to go and something has to be done about that paper print. A note about the print here. Custom frames are expensive (really, I'm not fooling). Poster and frame shops have catalogs that list the overall size of the print and with any luck, the size of the image minus any borders. You want to know this. If you can get prints that you like in standard sizes (like 8x10, 11x14, 24x30) then you will be able to frame them yourself with off the shelf frames for $20-$50 on average. If you get odd size prints then, for a reasonably decorative, victorian style frame you will be paying a frame shop $16-$40/foot for frame stock plus labor. It might be worth it to pay that much for one or two pieces that you really want but most of us can't afford to do that very often.

That said, to prepare the print, any border (such as the white space that commonly has the name of the artist, work, or gallery) has to go. You want to be working with the image only.

Now we have to do something to make that paper print look like it might actually be an orginal artwork. There are a couple ways to go. First, you can take it to a poster or frame shop where they should be able to dry mount on a sheet of plastic with a canvas-like texture that is made just for this purpose. This is an adequate choice for works that are very smoothly finished and would be unlikely to show noticable brush strokes. This should be able to be done at a nominal fee and can go along with the next step which is to get a good frame.

Another good choice, and one that is likely to be less expensive and potentially more believable, is to texture the print by hand. First, mount the print to a piece of foamcore, backing board or the like. This should be available at any art supply store. The best way to mount the print is by dry mounting. This can be done by a frame shop, probably inexpensively. You can also use spray adhesive. Glues like Elmer's glue will put dimples in the print where you apply them.

Next, get some acrylic medium. This comes in two types. Gloss medium comes in a bottle and is fairly thin. It forms small brush strokes and is quite glossy. This is the right choice for smooth works like those of Bouguereau. I have also used this to mount small works to backing board. Just paint it onto the board in a thin coat and press the print on smoothly. I don't guarantee that this won't buckle some prints however.

The second type is Gel Medium. This comes in a jar and is much thicker than gloss medium; about the consistency of acrylic paint out of the tube. It gives a thicker application and is not quite a shiny as gloss medium. This is the right choice for works with prominent brush strokes like those of Monet or VanGogh.

In either case you simply paint the medium (which dries clear) onto the mounted print. Take care to follow the brush strokes of the original if you can see them. If not, use your best judgement as to where they would be. Follow the contures of objects in the painting as if you were painting them yourself. To make sure you don't miss anything, look from the sides of the print to see the glare off the medium. This is a simple procedure but it is rather tedious. When you're done, they texture of the paint should be visible on glancing light or on close inspection. With a good print and some reasonable care the effect can be quite convincing.

Now you need a frame. If your print is a standard size then it's simply a matter of going to a frame or craft shop and buying one. If not then you're off to the frame shop to pay the big bucks. You may be tempted to do the custom framing yourself. You should only do so under one of two conditions: a) you know what you're doing and have the right equipment or; b) you're working with cheap stuff and really don't care if you screw it up. Otherwise you are far better off paying a professional to do it.

There are a large number of frames aroung that are of somewhat decoratively cut stock in materials like oak. Although these aren't appropriate to the style as they stand, they can be worked with.

Gold spray paint from any department store is suitable for giving an antique gold-leaf look to a frame. For more sensitive applications you can get gold leaf paints from art supply stores or even real gold leaf.

Spackle or other fillers can be used to fill the grain of oak or other wide grained woods. Spread the filler over the surface of the wood and, when dry, sand to a smooth finish. Now apply the paint of gold leaf.

If you look at a good many gold frames in craft or frame shops you will see a dark grey color applied to the recesses. This effect can be replicated with acrylic paints. Acrylic gesso has a matte, slighty textures surface that is ideal. It usually comes in white but can occasionally be had in colors. The white gesso can be tinted with acrylic paint but, depending on the amout used, this will impart a slight gloss to the gesso. Watercolor will be equally effective for tinting without adding gloss. The proper color is abtained by mixing gesso with (mostly) black and (a little) Hooker's green. It would be ideal if you have already bought at least one frame so that you have something to look at as you try to get the color right. Remember that acrylics darken slightly as they dry.

Once you have the right color, brush the paint over the surface of the frame. Now, with a damp sponge, wipe the paint fron the raised sections, leaving it in the recesses. Don't delay in doing this as acrylics dry very fast. It may take some time and diligence to get everthing free from streaks. Making sure not to have the sponge too wet will help. The sides of the frame are generally left free of paint.

Alternately, you can use some red-brown acrylic or watercolor mixed with acrylic medium to form a thin, transparent glaze. Dab this lightly over the surface of the frame with a sponge. This treatment can also be used in combination with the above technique to good effect.

Some historical highlights of the Victorian Era:

1837 Victoria becomes queen of England at the age of eighteen.

1839 Invention of photography

1845-1851 Irish potato famine. As millions of Irish die or emigrate, English landowners in Ireland continue to export Irish-grown grain and cattle.

1846 Mexican-American War

1848 Beginning of California Gold Rush

1859 Darwin's Origin of Species published

1859 Italy unifies

1861-1865 U.S. Civil War

1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery becomes illegal in U.S. Territories

1862-1870 Germany unifies

1869 American Transcontinental Railroad is completed

1870s L.E. Waterman develops a feed system that makes practical a fountain pen that carries its own ink. Metal dip pens had been the norm previously.

1876 The United States celebrates 100 years of independance.

1880 Thomas Edison perfects the electric light bulb.

1880 Cologne Cathedral completed. Construction had begun in 1248.

1883 New York Metropolitan Opera founded.

1886 Dedication of the Statue of Liberty

1888 Karl Benz begins to sell a gasoline powered motor carriage in Germany.

1889 Eiffel Tower built

1890 First moving picture shown in New York

1892 Sierra Club founded by John Muir

1893 Debut of Verdi's Falstaff

1894 Benz inroduces the 4 wheel Velo. 129 would be sold by the next year.

1896 Henry Ford builds his first car.

1897 Kaiser Wilhelm II, the first of the great ocean liners, is launched

1898 Radium discovered by Madame Curie

1899 Aspirin begins to be manufactured

1900 William McKinley rides in a car. He is the first U.S. President to do so.

1900 Henry Ford Company formed.

1901 Death of Queen Victoria

1907 Ocean liners RMS Lusitania and Mauretania are launched setting new records for Atlantic crossing speeds that would be held until 1929

1910 Death of King Edward

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