Anybody who knows antique furniture and the reproductions that follow them knows that familiarizing yourself with various furniture periods can be a big help. That’s why we decided to offer our readers a few useful summaries of the major furniture periods of England, starting with one of the first. This post is the 2nd in a series of 7, continued from a discussion of Elizabethan furniture.
As a time that saw the emergence of King James I’s famous Bible as well as the Virginia colony of Jamestown and some of the finest English art ever (including Shakespeare and Milton), the Jacobean period also preceded the regicide of King Charles I and the bloody English Civil War that followed. Many of the tensions that exploded in those years mounted during King James I’s reign, and so this period represents a very important period in English history. Perhaps it is for this reason that Jacobean history has always been seen with a distinctness and clarity that other periods have seldom attained. As for Jacobean furniture style, it has survived mostly through the styles that succeeded it, particularly as a result of 19th century Eclectic Revivalism.
So named for the reign of King James I (1603-1625), Jacobean period furniture saw a rather smooth development from earlier furniture styles. As opposed to many other transitions between English periods, the transition from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean period was marked by continuity rather than by opposition. Indeed, rather than radically shifting designs, Jacobean furniture altered certain aspects of Elizabethan precedents. For example, furniture maintained ornate carvings and florid designs but was no longer so large and heavy, nor so deeply carved. Marquetry became more common, while later in the period designs became lighter and more ornate. Jacobean cabinetmakers invented the gate leg table and developed and perfected many of the basic furniture designs used today, such as fix-framed chairs and tables as well as framed chests with drawers and draw leaf tables, which made their first appearance about 100 years prior to the Jacobean period. Thus in many ways Jacobean furniture represents the beginning of modern English furniture and the end of all styles before that (a trend begun in Elizabethan period furniture). The distinctive maze-like decorative paneling that continues to be used in furniture today was also developed and commonly used during the Jacobean period.
At this time, oak remained the dominant wood of choice because of its strength and availability, followed by elm and ash. Walnut and other exotic woods were for the most part imported from the European continent but remained uncommon, as the principal import at the time was the use of ornamentation and carvings. Very few Jacobean pieces survive today, so much of what is commonly known about Jacobean furniture exists only in reproductions.
There is an unusually long gap between distinctive furniture styles after the Jacobean period, probably due to the chaotic upheaval that took place after King James I’s reign, a time that endured both the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the Interregnum (1649-1660). Indeed, the Georgian period that followed began nearly a century later in 1715.