Monday, August 22, 2016
The Many Faces of Victorian Whimsy
QUESTION: My great aunt left me a very unusual chair, probably because I admired it when I went to visit her. The chair has a grotesque face carved into its back. It’s legs are curved and there are groves carved into the ends of the arms. Can you tell me anything about my chair?
ANSWER: What you’ve been admiring and now own is a bit of Victorian whimsy. The Victorians loved decoration, the more fantastic the better. This love of whimsy can be traced to the English Romantic Age.
Bored with the classicism and artistic restrictions of the Age of Reason, Romantic artists found their inspiration in the Medieval Age, albeit an idealized one. Crumbling castles, enchanted realms, and magical beasts filled their art. The Victorians loved this and when English draftsman Augustus Charles Pugin published his Specimens of Gothic Architecture in 1821, the Gothic revival was born. Wealthy English families built Gothic-style houses and filled them with furnishings reminiscent of castles and medieval cathedrals. As time went on, carved plants, animals, and mythical creatures began to appear on the furniture they used to decorate their homes.
A wave of whimsical furniture soon appeared in England and swept across the Atlantic where it flooded houses from Boston to San Francisco. By the end of the 19th century, parlors and bedrooms overflowed with fabulously carved furniture. Griffins supported sideboards, lions roared from the pedestals of dining room tables, and North Wind faces whispered from the backs of chairs.
The most curious item produced in America toward the end of the 19th century was the Roman-style,or cross-frame, "face chair." In design, the chair resembled the folding 14th-century Italian Savonarola chair.
This odd little chair became a must-have item for American parlors. A backrest onto which grotesque faces or carved fruit had been carved, stood upon simply fashioned legs, gracefully curved arms, and a curved seat. The most common face was a stylized North Wind blowing wooden tendrils of” "wind" from its mouth.
Other faces included grinning ogres, laughing gremlins, and satyrs with wickedly out-thrust tongues. Neptune and the Green Man, or foliate head of Celtic mythology, were also popular subjects. It isn’t surprising that the stone ancestors of these faces stare down from the tops of medieval cathedrals and guildhalls across Europe.
The origin of the faces is fairly easy to trace. Woodcarvers arriving in America from Germany in the mid-18th century found work in Midwest furniture factories. They brought their traditions and mythologies with them. In a way, their carvings were like fairy tales and folk tales fashioned in wood to delight and entertain.
Heywood Wakefield of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Chicago and Stomps Burkhardt of Canton, Ohio, were just two of the many furniture manufacturers to produce face chairs. Workman would roughly carve the faces using machines, then finish them off by hand. They fashioned the backrests from oak or mahogany while they used less expensive wood, stained to match the backrest, for the rest of the chair. While they lavishly carved the faces, they kept the rest of the chair’s design relatively simple. Sometimes, they carved grooves into the ends of the arms to suggest fingers, and sometimes they turned the chair’s stretcher bars.
By the early 20th century, face chairs had all but died. As time progressed, the design pendulum swept from sumptuous Victorian ornamentation through the more restrained carving of the Eastlake period to the even cleaner lines of Mission-style and Art Deco furniture. Unfortunately, even paint couldn’t modernize these chairs, so most of them ended up in attics and basements. Many people simple destroyed them.