Reading up on Victorian Furniture

Zinnias and lilies
It has become super warm out here in Greater Noida, good for the Zinnias and lilies but bad for woodworking. I have blocked the windows in my workshop with glass wool insulation and plywood following the excellent instructions provided by Santhosh of the in Bangalore. But the workshop remains a furnace, albeit a quiet one.

I’ve been cutting and dimensioning some wood for projects I have in mind but doing it desultorily. It’s no fun mucking around in this heat, although I did refinish a bookcase that had been lying around for some time.

Instead I have been doing some reading on Victorian furniture. Why Victorian furniture, you might ask. Well, because a lot of what we consider “traditional” furniture is actually Victorian furniture. In the 19th century, a number of English cabinet makers came to India, mainly to Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and set up shop. These Victorian cabinet makers trained hundreds of Indian craftsmen and over the decades till the early 1960s produced excellent Victorian and Edwardian type furniture.

The craft learnt by Indian woodworkers was passed down the years and today much of what the older lot of these craftsmen produce is really Victorian inspired furniture. The use of dark heavy finishes, elaborate pediments, corbels, columns and so on are evocative of that period.

The heavy, often clunky Victorian era furniture has long gone out of vogue but a lot of it is still beautiful. Like most English furniture, Victorian era furniture cannot escape the influence of the three great 18th century cabinet makers - George Hepplewhite, Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton.

There is much to learn from the furniture of our past even though a lot of it might be too elaborate for current tastes. Nevertheless, several aspects of the somewhat more complex construction methods and details would be of great interest to today’s woodworkers.

I have a fondness for Victorian furniture because it reminds me of my childhood, our houses, schools and clubs all of which had heavy ebonised furniture. There was a certain grandeur about those times and a bit of pomp surrounding everything. 

I enjoyed that luxury but a lot of that furniture is not appropriate for today’s hectic times. We live busier, more functional lives, where help is increasingly difficult to come by and the constant construction all around us in the cities a source of unending dust. The need of the times is simpler, leaner furniture with less flourishes.

Elaborate carvings, fret work, filigree and so on are out because they attract a lot of dust and are generally difficult to maintain, re-polish and so on.

Fortunately, there are many examples of fairly straightforward Victorian furniture that can be reproduced with some changes.

This is an example of a Victorian Secretaire bookcase listed at the Antiques Atlas ( and is priced at over 3600 pounds (about ` 3.6 lakhs). I want to build something like this for my library but clearly I will have to notch up my skills quite a bit before I can attempt that.

Two books on the subject make fascinating reading: the first is a broad and fairly detailed treatise titled “Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors: From the Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau” by Jeremy Cooper (ISBN-10: 0500280223) and the second is a practical guide titled “The Victorian Cabinet-Maker's Assistant: 417 Original Designs With Descriptions and Details of Construction” by Blackie and Son (ISBN-10: 0486223531). 

The Victorian Cabinet-Maker's Assistant: 417 Original Designs With Descriptions and Details of Construction” by Blackie and Son (ISBN-10: 0486223531)

Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors: From the Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau” by Jeremy Cooper (ISBN-10: 0500280223)

The book by Jeremy Cooper provides the best examples of the works of a series of Victorian and Edwardian furniture makers illustrated with a large number of colour and black & white photographs. The major furniture and cabinet makers of that era are represented along with excellent accounts of their design philosophies, life sketches and major achievements. I found the book a pretty comprehensive introduction to the furniture of that period and it gave me an idea of what furniture of that period looks like. The book is published by Thames & Hudson; New edition (May 14, 2007) and is available on most online stores in India.

The second book is equally fascinating particularly for a woodworker. I first came across this book in a library and subsequently ordered it. The Victorian Cabinet-Maker's Assistant contains a wealth of practical tips on making furniture and was originally published in 1853. The current edition, a facsimile version produced by Dover Publications in 1970 is a lovely, large book with the kind of paper used in previous decades. 

I love the feel of this book and the intimate way it deals with various types of wood, furniture making details, carvings and much more. It has a large number of very detailed drawings that could be copied and enlarged for details.

The Victorian Cabinet-Maker's Assistant is just the kind of book any woodworker would appreciate. When I first chanced upon it in a library shelf, I was captivated by the long sections on different kinds of wood, their workability, source and so on. I knew I had to get it.

Well, now I have both books and while the north Indian summer continues to bake my workshop, I intend to put up my feet and read these and many other wonderful books about the many fascinating things this world contains.

Indranil Banerjie
12 May 2014