You might think that Victorian Gothic revival furniture was made for Halloween. The carved, devilish looking heads on chairs are downright spooky. However, that is a far cry from what their designers and collectors thought when the pieces were created in the mid-19th century. The designs were actually the result of a growing romantic era, created by such novels as those of author Sir Walter Scott. His novel, “Ivanhoe,” is an example.
Historically, Gothic carved motifs on furniture had their beginnings in Rome, with the folding chair known as the “Dante” or “Savonarola” chair. It was named after Gerolamo Savonarola, a priest known for his outspoken views in the 15th century. Reproductions have never stopped being made.
The Gothic revival look in furniture and architecture began in England in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. It was an outgrowth of the furniture and architecture made in Europe from 1150 to 1500 for churches.
Victorian items can be recognized by their painted arches, heavy fabrics and wood. The furniture has detailed carvings featuring elaborate, decorative paintings and intricate sculpture.
The Gothic revival movement spread across the world, including to Asia. In America, important cabinet makers in Pennsylvania created everything in the style, from parlor sets to cabinets, headboards and dining room tables. Among them were Gustave Herter, John Henry Belter and Robert Horner.
Another influence that popularized the Gothic look was the Industrial Revolution. Mass-produced furniture made quality pieces affordable.
There was a revival of interest in Victorian Gothic Revival furniture in the 1960s. Reproductions and copies flooded the market. Authentic period pieces made by important makers, such as Belter (1804-1863), became scarce. In a 2012 Neal auction, a Belter table sold for $27,060.
The problem for interested collectors is that few of Belter’s pieces were signed. They can be identified by the use of rosewood and the carvings of poets, statesmen and Gothic creature heads. They can still turn up anywhere.