“Georgey Porgie pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away”. So goes the 200 year old nursery rhyme about Britain’s (apparently) most reviled monarch. History has not been kind to George IV yet the style which he fostered and which bears his name, either as King or Prince Regent, remains one of the most beguiling of all design movements. Chris Yeo lifts the lid.
I’m quite sure that by the time you read this you will have had quite enough of opinion polls, so I’ll keep this brief. A few years ago, for reasons best known to itself, English Heritage conducted a poll to find Britain’s Most Useless Monarch. Henry VIII scored highly as did Shakespeare’s great bogeyman Richard III, but top of the rubbish heap came George IV. To my mind this was a complete travesty. Okay, he was extravagantly self-indulgent, greedy, lazy and irresponsible, preferring a life of luxury over the tedious business of governing but (as the joke goes) he had his bad points as well. Personally, I’m happy to overlook Georgey Porgie’s shortcomings for one good reason: without a doubt, George’s crowning achievement was to give his name to the style of decorative art known as Regency. But just what do we mean by the term Regency and what, as a style, makes it so distinctive?
The period between 1811 and 1820 is known in British history as the Regency. In 1811 King George III descended into his final spell of “madness” and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled in his place as Regent. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. But the styles and fashions of the Regency were not confined to that specific period in time. The influence of the Prince made itself felt long before he became Regent and carried on after George became king. In truth, as a decorative style, Regency has come to embrace a wider time frame, from the 1790s to the 1830s. Over its forty year lifespan, the Regency style evolved, taking twists and turns that makes it one of the most fascinating epochs in design history. From the light, dainty classicism of its early years, it moved, to a full-blooded interpretation of France’s Empire style, while its later years were marked by heavier, more architectural forms inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. Alongside these other fashions fell in, and out, of favour – Indian, Chinese, Egyptian to the Gothic of Old England. At first glance the Regency style can seem bewilderingly diverse. Truth is, there isn’t one Regency style but many. But over all this stylistic merry-go-round, one figure looms above all others: the Prince Regent.
In the decorative arts it’s customary for a stylistic epoch to take the name of the current ruling figure; for example, we think of Georgian and Victorian in England, Gustavian in Sweden or any number of Louis in France. To varying degrees most of these figures played a role in popularising a particular look, through commissioning furniture for their palaces or commissioning the palaces themselves. Yet few played such an active role as George IV. He was arguably the best patron and collector of art ever to sit on the English throne. In a time when wealth and privilege counted for everything, George was the undisputed leader of fashion and, as a major patron and collector, he defined the taste of a generation. He spent great sums on his lavish residences, commissioning works from the major painters, architects, designers and interior decorators of his day. His appetite for collecting art and antiques was prodigious; in three years he spent the vast sum of £160,000 on furniture alone. He was a passionate and discerning collector of Dutch masters, Serves porcelain, silver and the finest French furniture. The palaces he built, re-built and remodelled still strike us with a sense of awe: the Brighton Pavilion, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are all largely as George left them.
High style Regency, as practiced by George and his circle of friends was a spectacle not for the faint hearted. Opulence was the desired effect and interiors were gilded to within an inch of their life; gold leaf on plasterwork, furniture and panelling. Gilded bronze on doors, in the hearth and on light fittings and all lit by new-fangled oil (and in the King’s case, gas) lights. The fashionable Regency interior shone day and night. Silk damask, was used liberally, as heavily swagged drapes at the window, on the walls and as upholstery. Bright colours were the order of the day – crimson, magenta, coral were all popular. Fuschia pink interwoven with silver thread was a particular favourite of George’s (the colour had yet to acquire its feminine associations, instead being associated with regal splendour). The types of wood used for furniture tended to be darker and heavier. Rosewood became very fashionable after 1800 and many pieces were made entirely of it. Other exotic timbers, such as zebra wood and ebony were used in conjunction with brass inlay and ormolu mounts, all adding to the rich effect.
At its best, the Regency style was original, exciting and (much like Prinny himself) more than a little theatrical. There was an appetite for novelty and some frivolity. Designers let their imaginations run riot: chairs sprouted dolphins for arms and lion’s paws for legs. The enthusiasm for all things Egyptian which followed Nelson’s victory at the Nile saw furniture being embellished with sphinxes, ships ropes and anchors. If you fancied living in a modern, centrally heated Norman castle (as some did), why worry that the Normans didn’t have washstands and sofas and sideboards when a designer like Thomas Hopper could magic one up for you? While many designers revelled in the creative possibilities open to them others adopted a more scholarly approach. Chief amongst the latter was Thomas Hope (1769-1831). Designer, collector, patron and writer, Hope was probably as influential as George himself in moulding popular taste. Born of a wealthy banking family, as a young man on his Grand Tour, Hope had been deeply inspired by the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt and he would go on to use antiquities as the basis for his designs for interiors, furniture and metalwork. In 1799 he bought a house designed by Robert Adam in Duchess Street, London, which he remodelled with a series of themed interiors to display his designs and his vast collection of the antiquities he had collected on his travels. Part museum, part show-home, Hope’s house was open to select visitors, but his furniture reached an even wider public through his book, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, published in 1807, which introduced the term ‘interior decoration’ into the English language. Hope was the leading figure of a movement which saw chairs with Greek klismos backs and sabre legs, X-framed stools, monopodium tables and scrolled-end couches (known as “Grecian daybeds”) all become popular pieces.
If richness is one characteristic of Regency style, the other is informality, or rather, relative informality. The Georgian period had been one of rigidity in manners and ways of living. Interior design reflected this: houses were for show not comfort. The Georgian Drawing Room was sparsely furnished with furniture pushed up against the walls when not in use. Rooms had a defined purpose – the Eating Parlour, the Drawing Room for conversation, the Library for reading, Music Room for playing instruments. Grandeur, as exemplified in the chilly classicism of the Palladian and Neo-Classical styles was the order of the day. By the time of the Regency ideas about how homes should be used and decorated had started to change; the modern day sitting room emerged as rooms became multi-functional and furniture began to be arranged in the middle of the room. Sofas, couches and sofa tables began to be introduced making the fashionable interior a more welcoming and relaxed space. As rooms became less formal a less ponderous approach to furniture design evolved and ideas the chilly classicism of the Palladian and Neo-Classical movements began to be replaced with pieces geared for comfort and conversation.
With its variety, colour, craftsmanship and panache, the Regency style is as fresh and exciting today as it was two centuries ago. Not surprisingly, it has still got a strong following and remains popular today. Which is a lot more than can be said for poor old George IV.
Images courtesy of:
Image 1: Burton Constable Hall Foundation
Image 2: Brighton Museums
Image 3: Brighton Museums
Image 4: Brighton Museums
Image 5: Chatsworth House Trust