The Regency period in England was named for the Prince of Wales, the Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820 and later King George IV, whose patronage naturally led the tastes and fashions of the age. While the prince’s regency technically only lasted for a period of nine years, the Regency period more generally refers to the first few decades of the 19th century, beginning with the madness of King George III and ending with the death of George IV in 1830. It was a period when the English country home reigned supreme, and a new, distinctly English version of the French Empire style emerged in both architecture and decor.
The Prince Regent: Tastemaker
While previous periods of design also bear the names of their respective monarchs, the Regency period stands out because the true influence of the prince as a tastemaker was unparalleled in recent history in England. Not only did his influence extend to decorative objects, furniture and architecture, but he also influenced new social innovations that changed the day-to-day lives of the English nobility. No longer did the aristocracy dine at 3 PM, but closer to 7 in the evening. Service à la française fell out of fashion during meals, while service à la russe (in the Russian style), wherein dishes were served by footmen, became the preferred method to dine. Even the form of the dinner service itself began to change thanks to the prince’s patronage of Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, the goldsmiths to the Crown who championed a neoclassical style.
Indeed, the Regency period was one of the most creative, inventive and expensive periods of English design, fueled and paid for by the rapid growth of industrialization in Western Europe. Wealthy patrons in England delighted in following the Prince’s eclectic taste for neoclassical design and a range of revival styles, including Gothic and Indian. While his indulgent lifestyle eventually took a toll on his health, his lavish commissions still form much of the present-day Royal Collection.
Naturally, the furniture of the period evolved from the previous decades to reflect these trends. Craftsmen in London were the first to respond to the new styles, though gradually, the prince’s influence also spread to more rural regions.
Neoclassicism and the French Empire Style
While at this point in each country’s history, the French and English were considered enemies on the political stage (the Napoleonic wars began in 1803), the French still had a massive influence on the styles and fashions of the English. Naturally, the Prince Regent wished to match, and even exceed, the design achievements of his rival.
First, a little history about the Empire style itself. Its emergence was largely thanks to the aspirations of Napoléon. The young general’s campaigns in Egypt, though unsuccessful in achieving his military aims, served to bring the world of the ancients to France and, eventually, England.
Napoléon approached his Egyptian campaign in an unprecedented way — to mount the first comprehensive scientific expedition of the region with the aim to study both ancient and modern Egypt. For this purpose, he invited 150 scholars on his campaign to systematically study the region and its inhabitants. The final result of their exhaustive research was the 34-volume Description de l'Égypte, which contained 844 highly detailed engravings and remains, to this day, among the most influential scientific and anthropological studies ever made.
The volumes’ influence was immediately felt in French furniture design as Napoléon sought to emulate the great civilizations of antiquity. It was just a few short years before their influence similarly crept into London, and the British aristocracy embraced the new, opulent brand of neoclassicism with open arms.
Regency Design in Practice
While the French reveled in the opulence of antiquity, the English took a more nuanced approach to neoclassicism, remaining true to a classical simplicity of form. Exact replicas of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman motifs such as sphinxes, ancient gods, griffins and lions were often used as decoration, though some designers would explore their own interpretations of these motifs.
This was the age of the heavy woods, and almost all pieces of Regency furniture were crafted from mahogany or rosewood. However, marquetry and carving in wood, a decorative practice for which British craftsmen were once renowned, had fallen out of fashion. Instead, a new emphasis was placed on the wood’s surface and extraordinary patinas, as well as elegant silhouettes. Beautiful sabre or concave legs echoed similar silhouettes from antiquity, and a particular emphasis was placed on quality and execution.
Classical motifs were incorporated through brass metalwork on corners, legs, hinges and handles. These often featured elaborate motifs such as shells and acanthus leaves juxtaposed with their simplistic yet beautiful wooden structures.
Regency Architecture and Thomas Hope
Born in 1769, Thomas Hope was a Scottish-Dutch banker and art collector who would become one of the most influential designers of the Regency period. He purchased his famed house on Duchess Street in London in 1799 and immediately set about decorating it to his specific tastes. His collection of ancient Greek vases, which he had acquired on his extensive Grand Tour, were proudly on display. It was on his tour that he first gained an interest in interior design; he returned home determined to reform contemporary taste by returning architecture, design and furniture to a state of classical purity.
He completed his vision for his London home in 1802, at which time he celebrated with a grand party attended by the Prince of Wales and later opened it to the public. The house was a stunning marriage of the very designs that most informed the age: Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Indian elements, as well as his own interpretation of the French Empire style. Most fascinating of all was the eclectic and highly inventive furniture that Hope himself had designed for the home. These included an ebonized settee and armchairs with gilt mounts executed in the Regency Egyptian Revival style for his “Egyptian Room,” a space that is still considered one of the most inventive interiors to have ever been made.
By 1806, Hope had published his highly influential Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, a text that included engravings of his own designs and interiors. In fact, it was this very text that introduced the term “interior decoration” into the English language. The following year, he acquired his country home, the Deepdene estate in Surrey, which became an important part of his aesthetic campaign.
So great was Hope’s lasting influence that his work on The Deepdene estate was largely responsible for the Regency Revival of the early 20th century. The 1917 Christie’s sale of Hope’s heirlooms sparked the interest of the British-American collector Edward Knoblock, who purchased a number of pieces that formed the basis for the first 20th-century Regency Revival country house, The Beach House in Worthington. Today, the collection represents the lasting influence of the Regency style in the realm of architecture and interior design.
To view M.S. Rau’s entire collection of Regency-period furnishings, click here.