William and Mary style furniture: light and comfortable, influenced by Dutch designs

China lacquered panel of a Chinese room. Author: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT. CC BY 3.0

The William and Mary style is a furniture design named after King William III and Queen Mary II, that was very popular in Britain from 1700 to 1725. The story of William and Mary furniture traces its beginnings to the 17th century when the unpopular Roman Catholic King James II was replaced by Parliament with his daughter Mary. She had married the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange, and soon the royal couple was called to England from Holland. Together they ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1689-1694.

During the reign of William and Mary, the style of furniture noticeably changed. King William imported Dutch ideas, as well as Dutch craftsmen who left their mark on English furniture styles, and soon furniture design in the two countries was almost indistinguishable. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 also played an important role, since many artisans left France and fled to England.

Dutch and Flemish furniture traditions replaced the medieval furniture style of England which was dark, thick and heavy. They emphasized the importance of comfort and introduced lighter forms of furniture, following the artistic trends of Northern Europe. Much of the royal couple’s furniture was designed by the French Protestant furniture designer Daniel Marot, while the Dutch craftsman Gerrit Jensen, the most fashionable furniture designer of his time, was commissioned as royal Cabinet Maker to the king and queen. Two different types of furniture are characteristic for this period, one very ornamented, inherited from the Stuart period, and another very simple, influenced by the Dutch.

A William and Mary style chair made in America. Author: Daderot. CC0

The wood used for furniture in this period was walnut, whose dark look is characteristic of the William and Mary style. Very often oak, pine, and cedar were also used, as well as maple and other fruit woods. The furniture frequently had painted and lacquered finishes, in the Chinese style. This is the period when mahogany was being introduced, that would, later on, become the dominant material for producing furniture. The popular Dutch feature of inlay or marquetry adopted in the English furniture used Kingwood and Amboyna, while for fancy pieces such as looking glasses, ebony was used. The use of wooden veneers in different textures and colors became common in the decoration of the fronts of cabinets and desks.

State bed, designed by Daniel Marot, engraving, ca 1702

An oriental taste in furniture decoration appeared during the trade with China and India. English craftsmen adopted the traditional oriental lacquering and William and Mary style was one of the first to imitate the Asian design elements called japanning. Chairs became more vertically oriented, with tall backs shaped slightly to fit the shape of the back. The back legs often match the front legs, and their shape is square, octagonal, or spiral-turned, with claw, hoof, ball, or bun feet. A characteristic element used on this type of furniture is the Flemish scroll leg, also columnar, spiral, and trumpet leg shapes were used.

China lacquered panel of a Chinese room. Author: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT. CC BY 3.0

The great Dutch influence was also noticeable toward the end of the period when the cabriole leg was introduced. Pieces of furniture often used during this period were chairs, stools, different types of tables, settees or sofas, daybeds, cabinets, chests and chests of drawers, secretaries, desks or bureau, clocks, mirrors, and cupboards. Gate leg tables were among the most popular, with drop leaves and turned legs.

English tilt-top table, late 18th century, Japanned wood (imitation black and gold lacquer), Honolulu Academy of Arts. Author: Hiart. CC0

William and Mary furniture, sometimes called Early Baroque furniture, also became popular in the colonies, especially in America, until about 1735. The new style was brought by wealthy colonials such as John Wentworth, whose home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was decorated with furniture in the fashionable William and Mary style. The “Boston chair” is a representative of the William and Mary style made in America. The graceful and elegant furniture was replaced with the Queen Anne style and Chippendale style furniture, however it can still be found in some British rural homes.