Who Was Charles Eastlake?

English Oak Butler's Tray with Hand-Carved Aesthetic Movement Border (LEO Design)

“Eastlake” is a term thrown-around rather frequently—often by Americans who don’t know to whom the name refers.  Charles Locke Eastlake was born in Plymouth, England in 1836. He studied architecture and designed some furniture, although, since he was not a woodworker, any such pieces were produced by others.  He is most well-known for his book on decorating, “Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details,” published in England in 1868 and America in 1872.  The book proved so successful in America, it required six printings in its first 11 years of publication.

In his book, Eastlake promoted a new look in furniture: angular, notched, carved with updated Gothic decoration.  This style of furniture, the Aesthetic style, became so popular that many of Eastlake’s sketches were copied by numerous furniture makers—without his permission—at both the top end and bottom end of the market.  In times past, furniture designers would follow the lead of architects—that is, making furniture to match the aesthetics of the buildings they inhabited. Interestingly, Eastlake’s book was so popular (and so many of his designs were copied and produced by others), that architects began to copy elements of Aesthetic Movement furniture on the houses they built.  This can most frequently be seen in the “gingerbread” of late nineteenth century Victorian homes. Eastlake was not pleased with the unauthorized use of his book or his name.  He is quoted, “I find American tradesmen continually advertising what they are pleased to call Eastlake furniture, the production of which I have had nothing whatever to do, and for the taste of which I should be very sorry to be considered responsible.”

While Charles Eastlake was certainly an important promoter of the Aesthetic Movement, it is important to remember that he was simply an arbiter of taste, the author of an influential book on respectable decorating.  To characterize all things Aesthetic as “Eastlake” or “Eastlake-style” is to misunderstand the term.  And the man.

Thus, I shall not refer to the English oak butler’s tray, pictured above, as “Eastlake.”  I shall describe it with its proper adjective, “Aesthetic Movement.”  And now, off of my soapbox!


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