Those of us who can’t tell our heraldic motifs from our scrolling foliage will find the V&A’s Guide to Period Styles an invaluable reference. Reflecting the South Kensington museum’s vast array of period artefacts, the book usefully pinpoints the key features and personalities of 19 decorative styles that have dominated British domestic and architectural design from 1500 to 1900.
With the help of designers Broadbase, the author, Anna Jackson, curator of the V&A’s Oriental department, works through each style in clear and chronological order, beginning with the Renaissance (1500-1600) and culminating in the late 19th century Scottish School (1885-1915), a watered-down version of the Arts and Crafts Movement which preceded it. Most period styles suffered burnout after 30-40 years, being succeeded by the next generation of new creative brooms. Occasionally you’d get two styles running concurrently, as with Regency Classicism (1800-1830), a mixture of ancient Greco-Roman design and mid-18th century French, and the early 19th century obsession with things Chinese and Indian, probably best exemplified by the fanciful Indian Mughal-style Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
I found it helpful to learn the distinction between Neoclassicism (1760-1790) and the Classical and Renaissance Revivals of the late 19th century.
The former, once again, emanated from ancient culture and produced, among others, Somerset House and large areas of Edinburgh, as well as Josiah Wedgwood. The later classical revival, which started around 1850, was probably sparked off by new archeological discoveries in Greece and Italy, which fuelled the imaginations of ceramic, fabric and furniture designers of the day. The brightly painted, tin-glazed ceramics of the Italian renaissance were widely imitated by British potters.
Indeed the late 19th century saw the greatest ever flowering of cultural diversity in design, from Indian erotica to Japanese print-making. The London home of the painter Frederic Leighton became a showcase for 14th and 15th century Turkish and Syrian tiles personally acquired by Leighton on his travels.
Arthur Liberty, founder of the department store in Regent Street, was a great enthusiast for Oriental art and from the 1880s commissioned leading British designers to emulate Japanese print and textile designs. Peacock feathers became the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement (1870-1900), championed by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, which believed in art for art’s sake, the unparalleled pleasure to be found in the possession and worship of beautiful things. The more workmanlike Arts and Crafts Movement developed in the 1860s as a reaction to the growing commercialisation of Britain. Those involved believed in the equality of all the arts and the use of natural materials. They set up workshops in rural areas and revived old manufacturing techniques.
For the most part, Arts and Crafts broke away from the historical and multicultural styles that had dominated the Victorian period, and reverted to a simpler, more organic style of design. By the end of the century, the ideals of the movement had affected the design and manufacture of all the decorative arts in Britain.
The V&A Guide to Period Styles: 400 Years of British Art and Design by Anna Jackson is published by V&A Publications on 18 March, priced £25.