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English Antique Furniture Periods – a collector’s guide


English period furniture is world-renowned for its elegance and its design, and antique furniture styles often reference the sovereign of the time, with each period of furniture characterised by common design elements. Here we look at popular English furniture eras and their date ranges.

Elizabethan period furniture (1558–1603)

Elizabethan period furniture is characterised by heavy ornamentation, with detailed and ornate carving. Popular themes included fruit and flowers, with vine leaves and grapes being commonly seen, as well as the more macabre masks and grotesques. Tables featured 4 or 6 bulbous legs with stretcher rails acting as footrests and four-poster beds were solid and elaborate. Oak was the wood of choice for tables and cupboards which needed to cope with a lot of wear and tear but finer pieces of furniture were made from more lightweight walnut.

Jacobean period furniture (1603–1625)

The Jacobean period refers to the Renaissance period of architecture and is named after James I, Jacobus being the Latin version of James. Jacobean period furniture features smaller and lighter carvings than its Elizabethan forebears and is characterised by sharp, straight lines. Earlier period pieces were heavy and cumbersome with square feet but later, turned legs and stretchers appeared, to reduce the rigidity, and ball feet were introduced.

Carolean period furniture (1625–1649)

The reign of Charles I saw chests being replaced by chests of drawers, the appearance of wing chairs and armchairs and the first day beds. Carolean period furniture moves away from the use of traditional oak, turning instead towards floral marquetry and the use of veneers. The plain pieces of the preceding eras were replaced with rich, velvet upholstery and gilded bases on cabinets.

Cromwellian period furniture (1649-1660)

During the puritan period of the Commonwealth, furniture makers shied away from decoration, luxury and ornament preferring, instead, simple and practical styling. Function was prioritised above all other characteristics and extravagant embellishments were discouraged. In the absence of carving, mouldings were applied. Where upholstery had made an appearance previously, this was now viewed as a luxury and was discouraged, with the exception of leather. In line with the religious beliefs of the Puritans, furniture from this period was much more uncomfortable than in previous times.

Restoration period furniture (1660-1689)

So called because Charles II (1660-1685) was restored to the throne after his years of exile during the Commonwealth, the Restoration period also included the reign of James II (1685-16-89). After the starkness of the Puritans, the Restoration period of English furniture was a time of opulence and hinted at the European style that Charles II had experienced during his exile in France and The Netherlands. Gold and silver embellishments were added to wood panels and spiral, twisted supports for furniture were produced on lathes. Natural motifs returned to adorn furniture with a more realistic basis in botany.

William and Mary period furniture (1689–1702)

The William and Mary period of furniture, also referred to as ‘Early Baroque’, saw the birth of elaborate and flamboyant furniture styles, which emphasized wood grain and utilised inlays. Walnut was a favourite wood with pieces featuring bun feet and generally furniture was lighter, versatile and more comfortable. The influences of the Flemish furniture makers that Dutch-born William brought with him to England can be seen in the rejection of the harsh angles of much earlier styles, which were replaced by soft curves. William and Mary furniture is light in weight and appearance and pieces were raised higher off the ground to showcase this. It was during this period that the use of dovetail joints in furniture first made an appearance, allowing furniture makers to use thinner, lightweight woods as they could distribute the weight more evenly. 

Queen Anne period furniture (1702–1714)

Continuing the move towards lighter, delicate pieces, Queen Anne period furniture, also known as the Late Baroque period, typically features curved cabriole legs and pad feet, as well as spade feet. Favourite woods were walnut and cherry, and fan and shell carvings were popular embellishments. Queen Anne chairs were comfortable, with cushioned seats that were often horseshoe shaped and upholstered back supports.

Georgian/Regency period furniture (1714–1830)

The reigns of four monarchs - George I (1714-1727), George II (1727-1760), George III (1760-1820) and George IV (1820-1830) – form the Georgian and Regency periods of furniture. Pieces are often mahogany and seating is ornate with quality carving. Notable cabinetmakers from this period include Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton and their work can still be found today. As the Georgian period gave way to the Regency period, England was undergoing a period of cultural change. Pieces made from dark, heavy wood with extensive brass inlays and column-shaped legs are typical of the era. Regency dining chairs are always sought after and are considered to be design classics.  

William IV period furniture (1830-1837)

Although only 7 years, the William IV period of furniture is an important one as it marks the transition period between the classical Regency period and the more theatrical or rococo Victorians. More exotic woods were used, including rosewood and zebra wood and furniture makers like Robert Jupe were introducing innovative designs for ‘expanding tables’.

Victorian period furniture (1837–1901)

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and subsequent introduction of machinery, an abundance of furniture was produced during this period, vital to meet the demands of the socially aware middle classes who viewed furniture as a status symbol. Victorian furniture was big and heavy, typified by ostentatious pieces with curves.  

Edwardian period furniture (1901–1910)

In contrast to the dark and ornate furniture of the Victorian era, Edwardian furniture was much lighter as materials such as wicker and bamboo began to surface. The period also saw a shift towards light colours, pastel shades and floral designs. Cabinet makers made use of further advancements in machinery to reproduce older styles of furniture in large numbers, as they realised the demand for older pieces was outstripping demand for new pieces.

The demand for quality antique period furniture is always high, particularly from overseas, and buying from a reputable antique centre is vital. At Hemswell Antique Centres, many of our expert dealers are accredited members of LAPADA, The Association of Art and Antiques Dealers. Strictly bound by the Code of Practice of the association, members are acknowledged experts in the field, qualified to offer support and guidance to both experienced and novice collectors alike.  If you are unable to visit us in person, our Managing Director, Robert Miller, will personally accompany you on a guided, virtual tour of pieces of interest to you, utilising the very latest in handheld video facilities. 

Our online selection of period furniture can be found here or alternatively, you can search our website by period.

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