CHARLES II, 1660 TO 1685
IF it was to the Queen of Charles II that the Carolean period of furniture owed its Portuguese strain and the evidence of strange things from the East, it was from a woman of quite another sort that the predominating influence came. French styles were the vogue at court, not because the Queen, poor dull woman, wished it, but because Louise de Querouailles was the strong influence, and with her advent came follies and fashions enough to please the light side of one of the lightest of mon-archs. France, in the person of Louis XIV, felt that England would bear watching while a Stuart strutted and flirted, oppressed and vacillated. And the French ways of those days being directed by such craft as that of the astute Cardinal Mazarin, a woman was sent from France to charm the King and stay closer beside the throne than any man could bide.
Charles created the light and lovely Louise the Duchess of Portsmouth and the mother of the little Duke of Richmond; and, that so much of extravagant beauty might be royally housed, he spent much
time and more money in fitting her apartments at Whitehall. Three times were they demolished at her whim, the extravagant fittings failing to suit her insatiable caprice.
Such procedure was hotly stimulating to artists and artisans. In the first attempt they sought to produce their best, but seeing it displease, they were lashed on to more and yet more subtle effort until- at last the pretty lady of too much power had forced the production of elegant new styles which smacked of her native France. Thus went by the board the efforts of English styles to remain English, and thus began that long habit of keeping an eye on French designs.
We think of Charles II as a figure-head of romance, because the rosy mist of poetic fancy clings to the members of the Stuart family from Mary of Scots down to—but not including—that Duke of York who minced about the throne of Charles II with his soul concentrated on securing from his brother his own personal advancement.
The horrors of Charles' reign, the Bloody Assizes, the Monmouth incident, his neglect to recognise the seriousness of his responsibilities, all these things are lost in the elegant frivolity of the life led at his court. Cares, ennuis, tragedies, were flicked aside by white hands thrust from brocades and lace, and a merry measure was the antidote for soul-sickness.
Those who made music or danced to it, those who rhymed (the naughtier the better) and sang their verses, those who led at toasts and feasting, those who wore the richest dress, were the persons of importance under the patronage of Charles II, in the time of the Restoration.
Nell Gwynn, she of the quick smile and quick tear, and vulnerable heart, was of the King's favour to the extent of honouring him with the little Duke of St. Albans; and on her Charles lavished accessories of elegant living similar to those he bestowed on Louise de Querouailles. The bewitching actress lived her quickly changing moods among the furniture that now graces our modern rooms here on this side of the water.
We were not importing many of those elegances in 1664. That was the date when Charles' brother James, Duke of York, left the luxurious court at London and came to give royal dignity to the little American town of New Amsterdam on the day when its Dutch dominion ended and the city was re-christened New York.
While considering the fascinating women of the court, Hortensia Mancini, for whom beautiful furnishings were made, must stand as the most alluring of them all because she ever eludes the critic or dissector. Somewhat of her uncle Cardinal Mazarin was in her astute secretiveness, but a baffling quality all her own made her proof against sur rendering her soul to any man's probing or to any man's charm. So rich she was that money could not tempt; so clever, with Italian wit added to Italian culture, that none could surpass her in repartee or discourse; so full of mystery was her dark and piquant beauty that all might envy her—yet so passionately unhappy, that none would wish to exchange with her.
Add to the list of women Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, who represented a heavy voluptuousness and a prolific motherhood for the King, and we see the women favoured by the King's artisans, and for whom the beautiful furnishings of the time were produced.
Though Charles II had no royal factories such as Louis XIV was conducting in France, plenty of rich objects of art were yielded by the workers. That astonishing aberration of taste, silver furniture, had a vogue at this time, the King considering his favourite worthy of such extravagance. It must have been ugly by its inappropriateness, however pretty was the woman it served.
Louise de Querouailles had hers set in a room lined all with mirror glass, which at that time was an expensive novelty. But it pleased the King to wander into the apartment of his favourite satellite and see the lovely image of the Duchess of Portsmouth sitting among her silver movables, reflected so many times in the walls that the world seemed peopled only with adorable women. Nell Gwynn also had her mirror room.
It was the Duke of Buckingham who made the mirror-lined room possible by establishing a factory for mirrors. Previous to this time they were exceeding rare in England. Now a leaf was taken from Italy's books and mirrors were made at home, with bevelled edges, and also with bright blue glass framing, inside the wooden frame.
Grinling Gibbons was at work on his carvings and inventions, and we have record of him as a decorator in a letter in which he tells his lady client: "I holp all things will please you." It was the year after the Great Fire, 1667, that Gibbons began to make a feature of the garlands and swags of flowers and fruit, carved with excessive exuberance, that are associated with his name and that of Queen Anne in decoration. To gain his effects he used the fine soft limewood as yielding to his tool almost like a plastic stuff.
In social England Bath played an important part, and thither went for new scenes the merry gossiping crowd for their routs and aristocratic carousing. This was the time of the sedan-chair, of the dropped note, the flirted handkerchief, the raised eyebrow and the quick eye-flash, all full of poignant meanings of their own. Life was a pretty game, insistently a pretty one, and following the mode, its accessories were pretty. At Bath the same elegant crowd played as in London, transferred by shockingly primitive coaches over outrageously rutted roads. The wonder is they ever cared to undertake such hardships as those imposed on travellers in England in the seventeenth century. But at Bath we see them, at the famous spas, with Nell Gwynn, wayward and ardent, charming the men, slighted by the women.
To be specific about the furniture styles of the times is satisfactory to the student, to the desired end that old pieces may be known from imitation, and that good adaptations may be distinguished from bad. In general it may be said that lightness continued to be the ideal in construction, particularly in chairs and tables, and that carvings grew ever finer in workmanship. Chair backs also grew narrower and higher. Caning was retained, but seats were covered with a squab cushion, or upholstered. A minute examination of the chairs on Plate 21 leads to the detection of certain characteristics. This Plate shows a particularly good example of the chairs as they depart from the fashion which prevailed immediately before the Fire, and as they merged into the style of William and Mary.
These chairs have details in common with chairs that preceded them, but as a whole, they are entirely different. They do not tell the same story, convey the same message, as the chairs of Charles I, for example. And that shows the subtle power of fur-
I'Ute XX—STUAKT SETTEE WITH CARVING. SECOND HALF OK XVII CENTl'KY
Plate XXI—CHARLES II CHAIRS OF VARYING STYLES IN CARVING
niture to express the spirit of the times in which it was made. "Feeling" is a word for the serious collector. Ability to read feeling amounts almost to a talent, and is certainly an instinct. Those who possess it know without recourse to detail where to place a piece of furniture never encountered before, and this even though it be one of those erratic pieces that appear in all periods. The feeling, then, of these chairs is French, but a transplanted French, growing under alien influence.
Descending upon details, the shape of the legs is so much at variance with those of the preceding fashion that they seem to alter the scheme of construction. By means of the change from a straight line to a curve the chair loses in honesty and in balance while growing in elegance.
Another point to notice is the change in the arrangement of stretchers, also the lifting from the floor of the elaborate front stretcher which is made to match the ornamental top of the chair back. The seat-frame retains the incising of the former fashion, and the square blocks at points of intersection carry the familiar carved rosette. The backs have strong points of interest. The radical change is in the uprights, which, instead of being wide, flat carvings of leafage, are gracefully designed posts. A long step in the way of beauty was made when this style of back was adopted, a treatment which developed later in the century into the exquisite carved backs, which even exceeded the French in graceful invention. An examination of the chairs of 1685 will show the perfection of the style which was begun by Charles II, adopted by James II and further developed under William and Mary.
To continue the lesson of the chairs, it was here that the old flat S curve began to alter into the richer, more robust C curve. The leg of chairs carved in C scrolls follows the shape of the curves, and furniture of this pattern has exceeding charm, especially when the front stretcher has been treated by an inspired hand. Much sought are the chairs and sofas of this period, and when covered with needle-point are keenly valued for use in the superb living-room which in modern homes often takes place of the drawing-room.
Happy indeed is the collector who can find such an old English sofa as that in the Metropolitan Museum on Plate 22. It is entirely characteristic, and shows not only the interesting fashion in carving, but the large advance in upholstering. Such comfortable work was unknown before the reign of Charles II. If we have curiosity as to the appearance of the gentlefolk who used such furniture, the embroidered cover of this piece shows lovely woman in her hours of ease, and mankind hovering near with a wish to please. But this very embroidery shows how difficult a matter it was for the English to draw with true hand and free, a purely decorative motive; for,
Plate XXII—WALNUT SOFA Carved in C curve», time of Jamea II covered with petit point embroidery
Plate XXIII—GILT MIRROR. TIME OF CHARLES II When mirrors were freely made in England outside the figures of the medallions, the whole thing is meaningless and without consistency.
For a clue to the inspiration of English work in the last quarter of the century, which embraces that of Charles' reign, that of James II and of William and Mary, it is advisable to turn a keen eye on the artistic and political actions of France. The Great Louis was on the throne, and the great Le Brun was the leader in the decorative art of the day.
One of the political mistakes of Louis XIV was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that edict which had protected from persecution so large a number of Protestant workers in the liberal arts. Among these people were tapestry weavers, silk weavers, glass workers, wood carvers, members of all the crafts that contribute to the beauty of the home. Eventually they came to England for safe haven.
It is impossible to over-estimate the benefit to England in an aesthetic way of the advent of all these skilled workers, men whose equal were to be found in no other country. Louis XIV had made a royal hobby of exquisite furnishings. He had placed their manufacture among the royal pleasures and also among the state duties. He had glorified the art of furnishing as it had never before been done, by the magnificent institution of the Gobelins factory. Here men learned their craft—an infinite variety of crafts—and achieved perfection. All at once many of these workers were forced to flee or meet death under the new dictum of the King. And thus England received the outcasts to her own enrichment.
One of the industries in which England was behind the Continent was the manufacture of silk. The French refugees were soon established in London at Spitalfields, reproducing the magic weaves they had formerly made for the imperious pleasure of the royal favourites in France. Satins, brocades, taffetas of wondrous dye and lustre, flowed from the looms of the able weavers who thus drowned their nostalgia in excess of a loved and familiar occupation.
One result of this mass of beautiful material being thrown to a delighted public, was the change made in the fashion of interior wall-treatment. The beautiful oak panelling of other days oppressed with its seriousness the light mood of Charles II and his light companions. The gay sheen of silk was more sympathetic and enlivening. On the walls, then, went the silk. In Anne's time the panels grew larger, then became a wainscot and sank to the height of a man's bewigged and capricious head; then lowered to a chair's height for the Georgian era. And above flowed the gracious lines of silken fabrics concealing all the walls, made in Spitalfields by the French refugees and their followers.
The pretty Duchess of Portsmouth had her rooms hung with silk and with wondrous tapestries from
France, though England made both silks and tapestries. Beds of the day retained the high posts and tester or canopy, heavily draped, and the bed was similarly covered. The bed was carved, even to the tester, in French inspiration, and was elegant indeed. In such a bed came the King at last to lie in mortal illness in the palace at Whitehall, where the lovely Louise had first place by the royal invalid, while the Queen was treated as a negligible quantity. The Duchess of Cleveland, that other favourite, was not far in the background, and the King in his last hours remembered still another when he implored: "Don't let poor Nell starve."
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