What is Georgian style?

The description “Georgian” is applied extremely loosely at times. But what is Georgian style? Here are two ways I have seen the term commonly used:

– anything European (usually English) that dates from the 18th or early 19th Century

or

– pretty much anything in a classical revival style.

Let’s unpack the term and it will hopefully it will help you be more discerning when you hear something branded as “Georgian”.

The Georgian period

The term Georgian in an historical sense refers to the time frame from August 1714 to June 1830, which covers the reigns of four British monarchs – George I, George II, George III and George IV. The period from 1820-1830 is sometimes referred to as “late Georgian”. You may also hear the term “Regency” used to describe furniture from the period when George IV was the Prince Regent (1811-1820).

The problem is that there are four major design styles during this period: Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical and Classical Revival. These styles do not neatly coincide with the reigns of the four King Georges. Add in the early Gothic revival, and borrowings by designers from China (Chinoiserie), Egypt and Ancient Greece, and you start to see how problematic“Georgian” is as a descriptive term.

Georgian Design in Australia

The number of examples of genuine Georgian design that actually originate in Australia is very small. Examples of the restrained lines and classical proportions of Georgian architecture include Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, and 89 Macquarie Street, Hobart.

Furniture by Australian makers from 1788 – 1820 is termed “Colonial”. Native timbers such as red cedar, Huon pine, casuarina and blackwood were used by colonial cabinet makers. They crafted pieces in the fashionable Neo-Classical style that came over from Britain via published designs by Thomas Sheraton and others. Authentic Australian Colonial furniture is rare, highly collectable and consequently expensive.

Georgian Style

Furniture from the Edwardian period 1901 – 1910, when there was a yet another revival of the Neo-Classical or Sheraton-style, is sometimes dubbed Georgian by antique dealers. It should more correctly be termed Georgian revival. And there is reproduction furniture from later in the 20th Century which really should just be called be Georgian style.

However the piece is described, the price should be commensurate with the age, quality of workmanship, patina and condition. The 18th Century remains a favourite period for collectors of fine furniture. The proportions are generally regarded as superior, the workmanship more refined and in some cases the timbers used were not available in later periods. Real 18th Century pieces command premium pricing and this is why it’s important to look beyond the labels.

Buying Georgian

My advice is to ignore the “Georgian” tag and ask the dealer what approximate date they would place on the piece and has it been restored or altered in any way. If they are saying it is from the 18th Century, ask them to show you around the piece so that you can understand how they have arrived at their opinion. A piece of furniture that is over 200 years old will have been made by hand, show authentic signs of wear and patination, and most likely will have had some restoration. For example: prior to 1850 veneers were cut by hand and may be up to 3 millimetres in thickness, easily distinguished from wafer-thin machine cut veneers.

If you are serious about collecting 18th century furniture, I would suggest following the English furniture auction sales out of the UK. Even if you don’t buy from them, the catalogues are excellent resources and the quantity and variety of what is on offer far exceeds that than in Australia, so the opportunities for learning are that much greater. It should go without saying that buying from reputable dealers or auction houses who stand by (guarantee) their cataloguing is advisable.

I hope this has been helpful, please let me know in the comments if there are other antique terms that you would like unpacked.

Reference: Hill, A. Antique Furniture in Australia, Penguin Books Australia, 3rd Edition, 1997

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