We often hear our designs being referred to as ‘Victorian,’ ‘vintage’ or antique. Though they are mostly used as compliments or at least adjectives, none of them are accurate. Vintage refers to some styles of the recent past and antiques would have had to be made at least a hundred years ago. Our designs are neither. All of our pieces are made by us in the present day in our very own atelier.
One of the stickier labels is ‘Victorian.’ It is unsurprising that ‘Victorian’ has become a term of general nostalgic value in India. Queen Victoria was regent during most of the British rule, and the most enduring forms of colonisation is that of the mind. Thus, Victoria continues to be associated with anything considered of historic importance.
Furniture and design can be referred either by the name of an art movement or style that they come from, or by the name of the regent in power during that era. There is a major overlap between transitions of power and the appearance of new styles, as each new regent tries to impose their own distinctions to their rule. Where the transition of power was within one dynasty, the transition of styles would be more gradual and fluid. Where it was not peaceful, there would always be an intentional erasure of the previous rule’s art and culture. So art, design and furniture have never been apolitical, and it would be an incomplete view to see them as such.
But more accurately, terms derived from a regent’s name refer to the art, design, music and general zeitgeist under their rule. And while it is never a strict distinction, as history is fluid, there are still more instances where the application of the term is wrong than right.
Our body of work at Parrot & Lily is not Victorian. While there are those on our team more inclined to the dignity of English styles than the flounce of the French ones, as a brand we are decidedly un-English. Even when we turn to English styles, it is usually Georgian and early, and sometimes the French derivations that we go with. We have excelled in French and Italian design, delved into the Gustavian and Fredrician, consorted with the Edwardian and Georgian, and even peaked into Indian inspirations, but we have never in the history of our brand produced an unadulterated academically Victorian piece. And that also accounts for the general lack of photographs to accompany this piece.
Victoria, c’est quoi ça?
Victorian furniture can refer either to furniture made during the reign of Queen Victoria in England or later pieces made in the same style. Chiefly influenced by the Gothic revival, Victorian furniture can be heavy and imposing.
One reason for the overuse of the term Victorian is the mixed nature of the period itself. It was a period of revivalism in England, and anything from an intricate Rococo style frame to Thonet’s bent chairs could be Victorian. At the same time, there is a distinctive quality in Victorian pieces of any style.
The use of a dark mahogany veneer was one feature. Upholstery was very thick, such as deep red velvets. It was also often buttoned, adding depth to the heavy fabrics. Victorian pieces of any style tended to be on the bulkier side, often described as monumental. Furniture was brown, rather than painted, and rarely gilded.
This lovely illustration from Through the Looking Glass represents an iconic Victorian Lady’s armchair with its bulbous form, turned legs and button upholstery.
More ornate styles were preferred to the previous simple austerity (in furniture design) of the Georgian Regency era. There was a certain grandeur and self-importance that characterised the effect of Victorian pieces. Some of the best of the late Victorian age is carefully preserved in the architecture of Australia. Similarly the influences of the age can be felt in former British colonies. It is often said that the Victorians were obsessed with death; it is they who started the custom of 'letters edged in black' as mourning stationery. Some say this preoccupation is reflected in design as well. This is mostly the true of the high Victorian Gothic style.
The London St. Pancras building, designed in the Italian Gothic style by Gilbert Scott
At the same time, the sociological influences of the industrial revolution were felt as the want to appear rich overtook the need to be rich among the rising middle classes. An unfortunate deterioration of craftsmanship was observed due to the mechanisation of the production process. The Victorian era was the first time that furniture was mass produced in factories, with its production process sharply divided. Design and proportions lost much of their grace in the Victorian factory. But this was not without opposition. The unmistakable traditionalism of William Morris was fast to the rescue.
Even as the Romantics of the age managed to maintain a preserve of classicism and traditionalism, mass production set into force a general deterioration that we continue to defy even today. In a way, the Victorian age was a fork in the road, and we are quite happy about the side we find ourselves on.
As a revivalist brand, we would love to take the best of the Victorian age and bring it back to life. The armchair above is one such example. However, most people find authentic Victorian style to be bulky and overpowering. Actual Victorian style would often be considered stuffy, with its heavy drapery and dark carvings. Instead, it is a general 18th-19th century European aesthetic that gets referred to as 'Victorian.' Rather bafflingly, we have even heard professionals in the field do the same. And very unfortunately, even the term 'colonial' is used with a romanticised affectation.
We take our vocabulary quite seriously at Parrot & Lily, so if you ask us for Victorian interiors, don't be shocked if it is a seriously authentic Victorian saloon that you get, and not an easy-breezy French château.