Friday, February 8, 2008

Style Guide: Tudor

Stylistic freedom colored England's Tudor period from 1485 to 1603. Fueled by political stability, international trade and prosperity, a building boom of multistory individual manors and townhouses introduced signature design features for long-term living and comfort: the wall fireplace, wall and ceiling ornamentation like strapwork, and ornate permanent furniture. Other decorative elements are a hodgepodge of influences from Gothic Europe, Italian and German Renaissance, the Orient and the Middle East.


Service Ware
Tudor interiors exhibited a host of goblets, spoons, plates and bowls made of pewter, brass or silver. They were displayed on buffets, cupboards even tables. Beginning in the Tudor period, thick green, cast glass was being produced.

Modern Variations

  • Choose some items with medieval roots and others with a Renaissance flavor to best capture the spirit of the Tudor style.
  • Simulate the cast glass today with vases and glasses of modern recycled glass.

Oriental Touches
Islamic pottery and Chinese porcelain were first imported by Europeans during the early Middle Ages and continued to be valued in luxurious Tudor households.

Modern Variations

  • For a very special touch, put out a few pieces of Islamic pottery or maybe a Chinese porcelain tea set, some candy dishes or plant holders. A screen with Oriental ornamentation would not be out of place, either.

The Renaissance began to embrace the beauty, power and intelligence of man, demonstrated in the rage for portraits of historical figures. Hans Holbein was the official painter at Henry VIII's court, while Isaac Oliver became renowned for his miniatures at the end of the period.

Modern Variations

  • Search for paper- and poster-sized reprints of the period's famous portraits at museums, antique stores or art shops and display them in dark-wood frames on walls, tables and shelves.

Books and other reading materials were introduced after the 15th century invention of the printing press. The Guttenberg Bible in 1456 was the first large book printed using moveable type.

Modern Variations

  • To acknowledge this historical revolution, stack thick, leather-bound books or track down a modern, Guttenberg Bible reprint and cover it in leather.


Main colors
Stylistic freedom in decoration as well as architecture characterized the Tudor period and colors broke barriers, too. Crimson, orange, yellow, turquoise, indigo, sky blue, pink, purple, green and mid-brown, alone or in powerful combinations in fabrics and paintwork, made for highly flamboyant interiors.

Decorative elements, touched up with gold or silver, plus gilding, threading, fringe or paint, make rooms appear magnificently royal and dramatic.


Tudor Prosperity
With peace and stability came prosperity during the Tudor era as a building boom swept through England. Households, no longer temporary shelters, were multi-room and multi-storied structures to live in permanently and furniture no longer had to be portable, as during the Middle Ages.

Furniture became more substantial in shape and weight, plus sophisticated in ornamentation. Carvings, painted patterns, curving, gilding and strapwork were popular.

The most valued piece was the bed, a wooden four-poster with ornately carved footposts in bulbous cup-and-cover shape and wainscoted headboard, holding up a canopy and curtains.

Built-in Furniture
Fitted furniture is a key feature of all Tudor houses. Hinged bench seats double as storage chests. Fixed seats are fashioned into window recesses, porches and within great fireplaces.

Storage pieces for clothes, silver and important documents were standard for households of all income levels. A standout was the wall aumbry, produced by attaching a frame and doors to a recessed masonry wall or wooden partition.

Modern Variations

  • Build trestle tables and benches into kitchen floors and settees with arms formed into walls.
  • Look for authentic carved and paneled, high-backed chairs, such as the "gossip chair," with trapezoid seat and wide arms to accommodate the full-skirted Tudor ladies. There is also the farthingale chair, armless but with padded back and seat.

Select traditional-looking pieces of oak, walnut, chestnut or beech with Tudor touches, such as

  • Carved chests with wrought iron studs and hinges
  • Long antique dining room table with carved melon shapes on the legs, distinctive of the Tudor era
  • Cupboards with open shelves for display of service ware
  • Dresser with spiral-turned details
  • Game table topped with leather


The flood of natural light was the biggest change in interior lighting during the Tudor period. Glass, available to houses grand and modest, allowed for more and bigger windows with "lights" ranging from two to eight. Window types included:

  • Mullioned – vertical posts dividing square openings and creating a rectangular "light"
  • Mullioned and transomed – crossbar splitting "light" in half horizontally
  • Foiled tracery heads
  • Four-centered arch
  • Square heads
  • Bay windows

Candlelight remained the main and most versatile form of lighting. The medieval period's pricket candlesticks turned into the forerunner of the candleholder during the Tudor period. Candles were held within a stick set on a single circular base with a central support. Later, branched designs proliferated.

Modern Variations

  • To recreate the effect today, look for tall, standing candleholders or candelabras, like those in churches, made of wrought iron, bronze, pewter, brass or wood.

Primitive chandeliers were used, too.

Modern Variations

  • Look for pendant metal coronets with holdings for candles or with flame-shaped bulbs, if the fixture is electrified.
  • Capture the Italian Renaissance ornamentation that influenced the Tudor period using any fitting – wall sconce, table lamp or chandelier – with classical designs of vines, acanthus leaves, urns or columns.


The introduction in the 16th century of the wall fireplace brought the most revolutionary change in interior decoration since the medieval period. During the Middle Ages, fire burned in a hearth in the center of a grand hall, smoke escaping through ceiling holes. But by the end of the Tudor period, wall fireplaces were built in nearly all sizes of dwellings. They remained part of the decorative scheme well into the mid-20th century.

Simple fireplaces are brick or stone with timber or stone lintels – plain, molded or carved with designs such as quatrefoils. In grand houses, fireplaces made entirely of wood, brick or stone are spanned by the period's signature, four-centered arch with molded decorations.

A frieze tops the lintels. Overmantels bear a coat of arms, decorative panels or interlacing bands, called strapwork. Added spandrels often contain badges or mottos.

The white marble fireplace, a definitive English element, was influenced by Italian Renaissance classicism and introduced late in the period by architect and stage designer Inigo Jones.

Wall Treatments
Walls in most homes were flat plasterwork painted with lime wash. In more elaborate structures, timber paneling was the norm. THey could be full height or to frieze or dado level, with thin oak boards, 24 inches square, set into grooves of solid timber uprights with cross members.

Carved decoration on paneling included arabesques, strapwork, foliate forms, geometric shapes and the highly fashionable, linenfold pattern.

Modern Variations

  • Walls with full height paneling – leave a gap at the top for painted or plastered friezes or for carved timber with heraldic devises. Look for the Tudor rose, a coat of arms, your initials, strapwork or arabesques.
  • Partially paneled walls – hang with tapestries, painted cloth, painted or plaster friezes above the panels or use painted decorations that imitate fabrics or paneling.
  • Try painting with period hues of red, blue or green.
  • Other options – Find Biblical, classical or folklore-scene frescoes.

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