Furnishing textiles in Australia: 1850-1920

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection holds numerous examples of textile furnishings provenanced to NSW homes dating back to the 1850s. In this article, historian Dr James Broadbent unpicks the history of textile furnishings in NSW and discusses textile technology, design fashion and consumer taste.

Few Australian-provenanced furnishing textiles survive from the first half of the 19th century. Time, fashion, the Australian climate — in particular the strong light — and frequent changes in ownership of houses have all contributed to the destruction of curtains, drapery, upholstery and loose covers.

Curtains are particularly susceptible to such ravages, and an 1840s set of crimson tabaret curtains in the drawing room at Woolmers, Longford, Tasmania, appears to be a lone survivor. Fragments of upholstery from colonial-made or colonial-provenanced seat furniture are known — for example, pieces of a green-black moiré woollen fabric, possibly harateen, from a colonial Tasmanian sofa, c1825, now at Old Government House, Parramatta — and more may be identified as awareness of their importance increases. A small number of colonial-pieced quilts include furnishing textiles among costume fabrics, but nothing has been identified of the Indian-manufactured furnishing textiles used extensively in Australian houses in the early 19th century. Before the decline of the Indian weaving industry in the 1830s Indian textiles dominated the Australian colonial market.

In early colonial newspaper advertisements references to textile imports, both from India and Europe, are diverse and tantalising. From India came mostly cotton goods: chintzes from Madras, palampores from Mirzapore and Patna, drugget, muslins, dimity and numerous textiles whose exotic-sounding names belie their generally mundane nature. From Europe came 'plate furniture' (now generally called toile), block and roller-printed cottons, and also woven silks and wool such as tabaret and moreen.

Depictions of colonial furnishing textiles are unknown before the middle of the 19th century and written descriptions are rare. An unusually detailed description of colours, although not patterns, is given in an invoice for textiles imported by John Macarthur in June 1812, including buff and blue plate furniture, 'Superfine Chocolate & Yellow furniture' and 'Superfine Li[gh]t ground rich Chintz'.

By the 1850s, documentation of house furnishings had increased and a few provenanced textiles survive. The unfinished patchwork, possibly intended for a table cover, attributed to Lady Mary FitzRoy (who died in 1847) and the patchwork bedcover attributed to Elizabeth Macarthur (who died in 1850) display a range of block-printed and roller-printed fabrics of the 1840s, for both costume and furnishings, in stylised geometric designs and naturalistically drawn, shaded and coloured floral designs.

Although such designs drew the censure of English design reformers of the mid-19th century — Henry Cole, for example, criticised their 'direct imitation of nature' as being founded on 'false principles' of taste — they remained popular, both in England and the colonies. The remains of a fine set of loose covers for drawing room chairs at Rouse Hill Estate, possibly supplied by the cabinet-maker Andrew Lenehan in 1858, is an example. The covers are of fine cotton, block-printed in a lush design of flowering branches and foliage, freely but naturalistically rendered (figure 1)

In the late 1850s colouring and design became more strident with the use of synthetic aniline dyes. Strongly coloured grounds and broad floral stripes were in vogue in the years around 1860, a vogue also reflected in a surviving upholstery fabric from Rouse Hill house (figure 2).

Designs more in accord with the reformers' notions, if not with the precepts of the incipient Arts and Crafts movement, of eschewing imitation, were the 'shawl' patterns popular in the 1850s. These small-scaled patterns with geometric motifs, often printed with borders, were directly influenced by the traditional designs of Indian woven and printed textiles. An important set of curtains, the oldest yet identified from a New South Wales house, is a 'shawl' printed set from Thomas Mort's Gothic mansion Greenoaks, Darling Point (figure 3). These curtains, or a similar set, are shown in a photograph taken in the 1870s of a bedroom at Greenoaks. They probably date to Mort's furnishing the house on his return from England a decade earlier. Although the design is Indian-inspired rather than Gothic, it was perhaps seen as more suited to the medieval style of the house than a naturalistic floral.

Equally reserved in pattern and worthy of the reformers' commendation was the overall leaf design, without shading or three-dimensional effects, that was the first covering of a Chesterfield sofa in Mort's drawing room (figure 4). The fine cotton fabric, roller-printed in three colours, is not glazed and is light in weight for an upholstery textile. Subsequent coverings of the sofa were small scale, naturalistic floral-sprigged designs on machined grounds.

Lining chintzes, printed with intricate machined or 'fancy' grounds, had become popular with advances in roller printing that enabled delicate and repetitive designs in limited colours. They were used for lining curtains, for lining pieces of furniture such as ottomans and wardrobes, and also for loose covers. The lining of the Greenoaks curtains, roller-printed in green in a vermiculated and spotted design, is typical (figure 5).

Black horsehair, of cotton or linen warp and horsehair weft, was the most common upholstery textile in the second half of the 19th century although complex figured weaves in silk and wool, such as damasks or tabarets, were favoured for more fashionable drawing room furniture.

Brocades, brocaded textiles and 'brocatelles' were widely used for both upholstery and curtains. An unprovenanced lambrequin (figure 6), woven in dusky pink and cream with a pattern of full-blown roses, is typical in colour and design of the third quarter of the century, although emerald green and crimson continued in popularity.

A crimson silk damask woven with a design of palm fronds, used c1878 in the drawing room at Government House, Sydney (figure 7), owes more to the disparaged 'landscape' designs of the mid-century than it does to the taste of the emerging Aesthetic movement that transformed wall and ceiling decoration there and throughout Australia in the last quarter of the 19th century and well into the 20th century.

Aestheticism was essentially a fashion or attitude, rather than an ethical philosophy like the Arts and Crafts Movement, and was vastly more adaptable and appealing. Its influence was manifested both in the sophisticated elegance of woven silk by skilled designers and in commercial cretonnes of coarse manufacture and banal pattern. An outstanding example of the former is the remnant of silk damask in a design known as 'Oxe-eye daisy' (figure 8), recently found on an imported English ebonised drawing room suite of about 1880 with a provenance to the Ramsay family, Drummoyne, Sydney. It was designed by George Haité in 1878, and subsequently woven by Warners and Ramm. An interesting example of mass market Aestheticism is the crudely designed late 19th century cretonne re-covering an earlier sofa from Penrose Villa, Dapto (figures 9 & figure 10).

The Haité damask is in a rich honey or amber colour, well chosen to complement the black lacquer, amboyna wood inlay and blue and white jasperware Wedgwood plaques of the Ramsay's fashionable drawing room suite. The cretonne is duplex-printed in a stylised design of flowers and leaves flatly rendered, in dull olive with touches of pink, outlined broadly in white on a brown ground on one side and the same design on a pale blue ground on the other, enabling it to be reversed or used unlined.

These very different fabrics illustrate the change in taste from the brilliant colours of the 1860s to an Aesthetic or 'artistic' palette of largely tertiary colours. The cretonne shows the change from the naturalistic and illusionistic florals and stripes of the 1860s to flat, stylised designs, and also the late 19th century taste for texture. Glazed chintzes printed with full-blown roses and convolvulus flowers became démodé. Sunflowers, poppies, chrysanthemums or simple meadow flowers (like the Oxe-eye daisy) were the leitmotifs of Aesthetic taste, together with butterflies, fans and Japanese motifs.

The design of the fine silk damask (figure 11) used for a set of window drapery, c1885-90, believed to be from a Melbourne house, relates to the Japonaiserie style employed by English designers such as Bruce Talbert. The designer of this damask has not been identified; the design is delicate but its stylistic traits are perhaps too obvious, lacking the subtlety of such a sophisticated designer as Talbert.

Rouse Hill house, redecorated in the affluent decade of the 1880s, is rich in textiles of an Aesthetic taste, mainly surviving as upholstery, but also used for drapery and curtains. Few designs are sophisticated and their quality is as diverse as their patterns. Remnants survive of an upholstery fabric of high quality used on a sofa in the principal bedroom (figure 12). Its rich, woven design of stylised foliage and flowers is possibly derived from Christopher Dresser's Grammar of ornament. In the drawing room the mid-Victorian seat furniture was re-upholstered in another richly textured brocatelle-like fabric woven with an elaborate stylised damask pattern, combined, as was fashionable in the last decades of the 19th century, with a casing of brown velvet. A new chimney glass in the room, its frame covered in 'greenery-yallery' silk plush rather than gilded, is artistically draped in a silk crepe of matching colour stamped with floral sprig motifs in gold (now much oxidised), probably in imitation of an Indian textile (figure 13). The drawing room windows are hung with machine-woven Nottingham lace curtains, in manufacture the same as the naturalistic floral designs of the mid-century, but here sporting Aesthetic, vaguely Japonaiserie, abstract motifs (figure 14).

As naturalistically coloured designs on glazed chintz met the taste of the mid-19th century, so more stylised designs, dully coloured, met the Aesthetic taste of the last quarter of the century. Cretonne is, technically, an unglazed twilled fabric, but the term seems to have been used generically for varied textured, printed cottons. There were many twilled weaves and coarse plain weaves that satisfied the demand for a textured base cloth for printing. With the exception of lining chintzes — whose dust-resisting properties were appreciated — polished or glazed chintzes declined greatly in production in the last decades of the 19th century. In their manufacture the new printed textiles were no different from mid-century chintzes — factory produced, machine woven and block or roller-printed - but their textures and their less three-dimensional or 'shaded' stylised designs and generally reduced colour palette could lend them a spurious, nodding acquaintanceship with Arts and Crafts ideas.

In the 1890s the curving tendrils of Art Nouveau began to spread over textile design. Debased Japanese motifs — fans and butterflies and angularity — were abandoned. The chrysanthemum continued to bloom, but the poppy grew taller. As the fat-budded moss rose had dominated floral design in the 1850s, it was the poppy that met the aesthetic ideals at the end of the century: its sinuous, drooping habit, its simple structure belying, in its opiate qualities, a hint of decadence. Not that associations of decadence impinged on respectable Australian suburban or country houses furnished with poppy-printed reps or cretonnes and made comfortable with poppy-decorated cushions (figure 15) and table covers, like the loose cover fora sofa from Mt Rothwell, Victoria (figure 16).

The more geometric forms of British Art Nouveau, exemplified by the designs of the Glasgow School, gained currency in the new century when the style could also be associated with notions of nationalism. 'Gum-nut' Art Nouveau, however, is confined to a few sophisticated designers and the decorative arts of lady wood-chippers, embroiderers, china painters and pyrographists, for there was no significant commercial weaving or printing of furnishing textiles in Australia.

The diversity of design influences on the furnishing of Edwardian houses is extraordinary. It was in these rather than in mid-Victorian houses that the battle of styles and lust for decoration reached a confused frenzy. The Aesthetic movement continued to exert its power in laboured complexities of drapery and furnishing arrangement, but the Arts and Crafts movement gained a new momentum among sophisticated designers and amateurs sated with 'artistic' excesses.

There was also the influence of the 18th century revivals: the Georgian revival, which grew out of Aestheticism's Queen Anne style, and the Louis revival. The former edged towards more restrained forms and decoration and paler colours; the latter towards rococo prettiness, a lighter revision of the taste that influenced much early and mid-Victorian design. Neo-classical and rococo (or Louis revival) motifs of swags and scrolls were often used indiscriminately. The lightness in delineation suited machine embroidered net curtains (figure 17) and a return to the simplicity of smooth chintzes and toiles.

A taste for rich fabrics and luxury revived, particularly in Louis interiors, and ran parallel with the comparative austerity of the early 20th century Arts and Crafts taste. Plushes and velvets were stamped (figure 18) or printed with motifs relevant or irrelevant to the style of the room and printed or woven chenille began its rise in popularity and decline in status. Once the fabric of fine carpets, it became the material of cheap printed panels for curtains, portieres and table covers (figure 19).

An innovation in the weaving of textiles was the production of 'shadow tissue' or 'shadow cretonne'. This was a revival of the chine silk weaves of 18th and mid-19th century costume textiles, although woven in cotton. It also had overtones of hand-woven Eastern textiles, for, as with traditional ‘ikat’ weaves, the warp was printed before being woven with a plain coloured weft, giving a soft, indistinct or 'shadowed' outline to the pattern, somewhat like printed cretonnes but without the texture (figure 20 & figure 21)

Other textiles which reached their greatest diversity in the closing years of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th were those specially made for blinds.

Most of these were 'holland' blinds of cotton variously woven or printed and heavily sized. A few were true holland — plain woven unbleached linen. Woven, coloured stripes were popular throughout the second half of the 19th century and not all were stiffened with size, as shown in surviving examples from Camelot, Narellan. Plain coloured sized holland in fawn, dark green and dark blue were widely used together with patterned holland. Surviving at Rouse Hill house are several blinds and remnants of hollands printed in a range of designs from meandering daffodils (figure 22) to the geometric florals of British Art Nouveau (figure 23).

The interesting collection of blinds from Camelot includes late 19th century ones printed with the predictable Aesthetic motifs of cranes and fans (figure 24), but most interesting, and subtle, are hollands 'stained' rather than printed, giving a transparent effect against the light (figure 25, right).

Blind chintzes, in imitation of painted transparent blinds and often in Gothic tracery designs, were printed in the 1830s and 1840s. Painted transparent blinds were used in the colony to at least the 1850s so it is likely that such chintzes were also used, although no references have been found. The transparent Camelot blinds are in this tradition: they are not pictorial but are monochromatic with Art Nouveau designs of trailing poppies and foliage.

Closer to the spirit of the earlier trompe-l'oeil blinds, although not transparent, is a holland blind from Mulgunnia, Trunkey Creek, New South Wales, printed in imitation of a wood-slatted Venetian blind (figure 26), as brazen in its fakery as if the design reformers and all their Arts and Crafts ideals of 'truth' had never existed. Such conceits, however, do not sum up the early 20th century.

Wombat Park, Daylesford, Victoria, is a fine early 20th century house built, and originally furnished, in the Arts and Crafts manner. A few of its early furnishing textiles survive, including a set of curtains and loose covers (figure 27) in a simple stylised floral print of three colours and curtains of light brown coloured rep with an applied border of printed silk (figure 28). This anticipates curtain designs of the 1920s, and may possibly be a replacement.

Many printed floral designs of the 1920s are boldly designed and coloured, with motifs heavily outlined in black, or with black grounds. There was a vogue for stylised romantic or exotic garden scenes, or night scenes with dark, silhouetted backgrounds. The Persian Garden design by Morton Sundour Fabrics (founded in 1914) was used widely, including in the nursery at Camelot, Narellan (figure 29).

Woven textiles continued in favour, with historicist designs in damasks and velvets. With the fashion for Jacobean furniture, 'tapestry' fabrics, both figural and geometric in design, gained a popularity that was maintained through the interwar period (figure 30). Heavily textured fabrics also returned to fashion, being particularly suited to darker, woody Spanish mission or Californian bungalow interiors. They ranged from shantung silk to linen with thick 'slub' wefts, and also laces or nets of bold, geometric design (figure 31).

Nottingham and Madras laces continued to be used, in traditional designs or running with contemporary fashion. This is exemplified by the stylish yellow, cherry and white Madras lace curtains with Egyptian motifs from Wombat Park (figure 32). Shadow tissue designs also became bolder with less muted colours (figure 33).

Technologically the greatest change was the use of synthetic fibres. Although 'artificial silk' had been invented in the 1890s it was not until the 1920s that 'rayon' was widely used, alone or combined with natural fibres. Rayon sheer curtains are some of the most distinctive textiles, both in texture and pattern, used in the interwar period. They ranged in design from geometric weaves, naturalistic floral designs and traditional damask patterns to abstract designs and motifs. They were sleek, often in neutral tones, but could also be brilliantly coloured (figure 34 & figure 35).

The excitement of international design in the period between the wars was heard only as an echo in Australia's furnishing textiles. Although they were almost entirely of British manufacture they show the conservatism of contemporary Australian taste: dull floral 'tapestry', traditional, safe damasks and floral-printed cottons and linens (figure 36). Cretonne and shadow tissue maintained their popularity. A few designs sport debased Art Deco or Modernist motifs, a few are tentatively abstract, but the consistent impression is that furnishing textiles in Australian interiors before the second World War showed a more provincial taste than they had fifty years before.

Furnishing guide : 4th edition / B. Bebarfald &amp Co Ltd. [trade catalogue]

Collection strengths

The Caroline Simpson Library holds many collections relating to the history of houses, interiors and gardens. Explore a selection of some of our favourites

Published on 
Dr James Broadbent

Dr James Broadbent

Dr James Broadbent is a historian, curator and conservationist who, as a former Senior Curator with the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales (now Museums of History NSW), was largely responsible for the formation and development of the Conservation Resource Centre now known as the Caroline Simpson Library.