The history of English antique furniture styles and periods in broad terms mirrors England's history generally. An island nation, somewhat cut off from the main currents of thought and design on the continental mainland by geography and historical circumstance, over time takes in greater influences from abroad both in human and intellectual form which produces fusions and resolving of styles that are then carried across the world.
At the earliest historic period that interests us here, early Tudor furniture, in some ways little distinguished from the preceding medieval era, we see the very beginnings of foreign influence on English furniture design as well as crucial advances in joinery methods. This period marks the beginning of the English renaissance furniture tradition. Such advances and trends are continued in the late Tudor or Elizabethan furniture era.
Jacobean style furniture continues the penetration of renaissance ideas in design prevailing in France and Holland but is interrupted somewhat by the Cromwellian or Commonwealth interlude, a time in which the trend towards more decorative furniture was halted.
The Restoration period marks the beginning of English baroque furniture, and the gradual replacement of oak wood by walnut and mahogany, and a great number of new models are developed, and then refined, through the following William & Mary and Queen Anne periods, the latter viewed by some as a particular high point in antique English furniture.
For much of the early Georgian furniture period styles associated with the Queen Anne era remain persistent alongside the opulent Palladian style. Later in the mid Georgian period the decorative and playful French Rococo style of Thomas Chippendale leaves its heavy and lasting mark and in the late Georgian age we mark the coming of the leaner and more serious "Greek" neoclassical style.
The Georgian age also sees publications of the first pattern and design books by many now famous English furniture designers including Chippendale's "Director" and Hepplewhite's "Guide".
The ever present attraction of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, and now Egypt, reaches the peak of its influence in the time of Regency furniture in the early 19th century.
The Victorian age sees a perhaps confusing mishmash of revival styles and attempts at novelty in the early Victorian era and also sees a reaction against the mass production of furniture in the late Victorian period with the rise of the Arts & Crafts movement. Such trends are continued in Edwardian furniture when the craze for reproduction furniture reaches its peak.
Often standing outside the flow of great events in London, or simply behind them, there is the world of English country furniture making, craftsmen working on their own, or in very small workshops, producing furniture often in a rustic or primitive style, or often based on styles of yesteryear handed on down through the generations. Also of interest is the history of British colonial furniture where the home grown traditions of Britain come into contact with Indian and tropical styles.
The 18th century was the golden age of English furniture. The wealthy and educated aristocracy of the Enlightenment decorated their great country houses with a sumptuous and refined elegance. This was the era of magnificent Palladian villas which, with their classical façades, white copulas and long colonnades, rose magically from the verdant pastures of the English countryside. The houses were enclosed by great tracts and design of the buildings and gardens were discussed at length by the nobility – dilettantes, whose minds had been broadened by the experiences of the Grand Tour in France, Germany and Italy. The aristocrat who took pleasure in the arts required a setting fit for the display of the treasure he had acquired abroad, and the traditional interior format had to be changed to accommodate his collections.
Galleries were left unaltered, but now, alongside ancestral portraits, landscape and paintings of various genres appeared (history paintings, still live, flower painting and interiors).
Cabinets where assiduous collectors of the previous century had displayed their coins, scientific curiosities, object de vertu, archives and rare books, became studies where rare objects, travel diaries, souvenirs and sentimental items could be kept. Libraries, too, now became rooms for social intercourse, and their books were instruments of entertainment rather than rare objects.
Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, the bizarre rock formations of Chinese gardens with their delicate little bridges, aquatic displays, Gothic ruins surrounded and half-hidden by man-made imitations of "untamed" Nature, temples, obelisks, pyramids, Pompeiian frescoes – these were all topics for intense philosophical discussion, the parameters of which were taste, style and elegance. From time to time a conclusion would be reached and the supremacy of one stylistic principle over another would be declared: the serpentine outline was to be preferred to the linear, the irregular and asymmetrical to regularity and symmetry.
The Virtues of Rococo flamboyance and the untamed picturesque were extolled; what was beautiful, sublime, dreadful was all matter for discussion and debate, in which every aspect of sensibility was called into play to determine what was preferable aesthetically.