The Victorian Era - Part II

The Victorian Era, as mentioned in part one, encompassed many different trends and independent movements. It is generally broken down into three periods, sometimes more.

Most date the Early Victorian Era from 1837 to the late 1850’s, with the death of Prince Albert in 1861 as the last possible date.

Interest in Greek and Roman themes dominated the 18th century and the early 19th century, which affected styles in fashion, design, and architecture. Gothic and military styles were also popular, influencing the fashion world. The styles of the period were in part, inspired by the lives and works of the writers and poets of the Romantic Movement and the love of the Gothic created an appeal for all things medieval.

The Gothic Revival style was perhaps given the most direction by the designer A. W. N. Pugin, who worked in such varied fields as furniture and silver design, but is generally best known for his architectural work. The work of William Burges is also important in this field. John Ruskin, arbiter of Victorian tastes, endorsed the style, along with an endorsement of medieval things.

The Gothic influence, as well as some Tudor elements, is evident in some later styles, such as Eastlake.


Dating from around 1860 to the early 1880’s, the ornate styles, a style, which many of us think of as Victorian, came into their own, but we also start to see rebellion against them. The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 featured many of the ornate styles.

Starting in the 1880’s, while the “cluttered” and ornate look of High Victorian style is still present; we start to see major trends towards a more streamlined style with an incredible diversity of influence. This period will also see the development of movements, which will carry on well into the 20th century.

There was a reaction to both the mass production of Victorian times, and to the perceived lack of aesthetic taste in much of the work. Many of these movements started in earlier Victorian periods however, it was not until the 1870’s that people began to feel their influence. The Aesthetic Movement, Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Celtic revivals all arise during this time, with Japanese, Chinese, Moorish, and Indian influences seen in European designs of the period.

William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have a great influence on the style of this period. The movement of the ‘styles’ are fluid, borrowing elements from different movements. You can see elements from the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite movement, trends from Art Nouveau, and the influence of traditional Celtic design in the works of designers such as Archibald Knox and the offerings of Liberty & Company.

The Arts and Crafts Movement takes on slightly a different look in America than Europe, with the European pieces having a more “refined” look, with Art Nouveau characteristics more apparent in European design. The Jugenstil and Art Deco movements owe a certain debt to both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles, and you will run across pieces which would be hard to pinpoint by its attributes as solely of one school or another.

Christopher Dresser, one of the Victorian era’s leading designers, incorporated Japanese influences into his work, some of which seems quite contemporary, even today. His work, in turn influenced Tiffany, Herter, and others. The influence of his work, which is streamlined and minimalist in style with a focus on function, can be felt and seen throughout the 20th century, although most treat his own work with disregard for much of the period. Dresser was rather unique. While his streamlined designs were in part a reaction to the overly ornate tastes of the mid-Victorian era, he had no aversion to the mass production methods of the time, as some of the other reactionary movements did.

In America, the Aesthetic movement and Gothic taste had an influence on general design. The designs of the Englishman, Charles Eastlake, had a great influence on American furniture makers, although Eastlake was not pleased with all interpretations of his work. Known best as an architect, he actually took his architectural details for houses from his furnishings, which is the opposite of the normal process, where architectural style influences furniture design.

The Japanese influence can be seen in the works of James McNeil Whistler, L.C. Tiffany, and in the silver work of Tiffany and Company, as well as many other silver makers.

Some American jewelers adapted to Art Nouveau very well, and some of the finest jewelry produced in America is associated with this style and a period known as the Newark Renaissance. Newark, N.J. was a center for the jewelry industry and responsible for the majority of the fine jewelry produced from about 1890 through the 1930’s. While some of this occurred in the middle of the 19th century, it was in the last decade of the Victorian Era that Newark reached the pinnacle of jewelry design. By the end of the 19th century, communication between Europe and America had reached a fast pace, and there was much less of a lag time in adapting European styles to American production.

So, as can be seen, many styles extend, with or without major changes, over several periods within the Victorian era, and others will recur in different forms. We will cover these varying stylistic elements in detail in an upcoming installment, Victorian Jewelry Part III – Victorian Style and Revivals.

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