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Modern Gothic Furniture and the Battle for Style Supremacy
By Robert H. Goldberg

The British Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 brought together most of the innumerable styles battling for supremacy in the decorative arts during the middle part of the 19th century.  The great revivals inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine, Gothic, Rococo, Renaissance, Louis XIV and XV and Naturalistic antecedents all had a place at that grand exhibition.  It was truly a battle of styles.

Ralph Nicholson, an art critic, whose father invented the upright action for pianos, won the contest to write the defining essay describing the Exhibition.  In his tome entitled “The Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste”, Nicholson criticized the official catalogue with “confusing taste with ornament.”  He foresaw the Victorian penchant for over-the-top decoration on every surface and thing in the English home.  Stylish Americans followed the British example, stuffing their homes with knick-knacks to enhance the exuberant Rococo and Renaissance Revival furniture.  Pieces by John Henry Belter, Alexander Roux and the Meeks family, all of New York, set the tone for cabinetmaker in the United States. 

In contrast, the famous British art and social critic, John Ruskin, urged a return to honest Medieval design from the factory produced overbearing furnishings displayed at the Crystal Palace.  Other influential critics joined him, and the stage was set for a change in the public’s taste.  Young designers influenced by Ruskin developed a style based on indigenous forms of the Middle Ages, which came to be known as modern Gothic.

The term “modern Gothic” in the Decorative Arts refers to furniture and decorative objects with clean lines made from about 1870 to 1890.  Also known as “art furniture” and “Queen Anne Revival”, depending on the creator, the pieces reflect the inspiration of the English “reform movement”.  This movement represented a change in taste away from the French inspired “ostentatious” highly carved Rococo Revival designs of the middle 19th century toward the careful workmanship of early English Medieval inspiration.

The best reform furniture was architectural in form featuring fine woods, inlay, spindle galleries, inset tiles and shallow carving.  The less ornate pieces with simpler decoration were sold at lower prices, but reflected the same elegant ideas.  The most influential exponent of the reform movement was Charles Lock Eastlake, an English architect, and tastemaker.  His Hints on Household Taste, published about 1868, became a bestseller in England and America.  It not only presented designs for useful household furnishings, but offered advice on draperies, metalwork, ceramics and clothing.  Eastlake’s book and the designs of other English reformists caught the attention of wealthy style conscious Americans and the cabinetmakers who served them.   The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 served to spread the taste for reform styles to some of the its ten million visitors, about twenty percent of the American population

Among the notable American cabinetmakers producing the finest examples of modern Gothic furniture were Pottier and Stymus, Kimbel and Cabus (who exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial) and Herter Brothers of New York, and Daniel Pabst of Philadelphia.  Mass produced Eastlake inspired furniture from the 1880s and 1890s produced in East Coast and Midwest factories is not hard to find today.  Those examples embody the rectilinear, sturdy forms, but without the handcrafted embellishments of the custom made pieces.  Their prices at auction reflect their more modest appearance.

The popularity of the modern Gothic style lasted for only a brief time, giving way in the 1890s to the Art Nouveau, Jacobean Revival and the Arts and Crafts movement, another reaction to the fancy Rococo and other revivals.  Today, the qualities of the modern Gothic style have been recognized and are appearing in museum collections and exhibitions in England and the United States.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the international auction houses, along with many regional auctioneers are featuring modern Gothic pieces by the leading makers of the period.

Our subscribers should not confuse “modern Gothic” furniture with examples from the earlier Gothic Revival period (about 1830 to 1855), which more closely embodied elements from medieval Gothic architecture.

Robert H. Goldberg is a p4A database editor and an Accredited Senior Member of the American Society of Appraisers from New Orleans, specializing in the appraisal of antiques and residential contents.
Room Rug; Chinese, Ivory with Blue Lotus Flowers, 18th century, 8 feet. [p4A.com item #D9852841] Room Rug; Chinese, Ivory with Blue Lotus Flowers, 18th century, 8 feet.
Sold for $ 3,107.00
at Freeman's
Folk Carving; Trick Box, Snake, Bucher Type, 1840, 6 inch. [p4A.com item #D9694067] Folk Carving; Trick Box, Snake, Bucher Type, 1840, 6 inch.
Sold for $ 1,062.00
at Northeast Auctions, Ronald Bourgeault Auctioneer