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What do honeysuckle, swags and urns have in common with crossed arrows and drums or with dairymaids and cows?

All are decorative motifs that have become popular during various periods of furniture design history. And while they are not the only means used to identify a particular style or period of furniture, they must be considered as important clues, along with the type of wood, scale, construction methods, and shapes of furniture supports. Often, these motifs sprang from the historical events of their day.

The Adam Brothers of England, prominent architect and designers in the late 18th century (1762-1784), were inspired by the discoveries of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These events, coupled with the publication of several books showing measured drawings of Greek Temples, sparked the neo-classic movement in England. For two centuries, the Italian Renaissance, which in turn was influenced by the early Greeks and Romans, had influenced England’s architecture and decorative arts. However, the Renaissance interpretation produced architecture with heavily classical interiors and massive furniture with bulbous or twisting supports. They also borrowed from antiquity the arabesque (a scroll and leaf pattern), gadroons (rows of elongated ovals), grotesques, and dolphins as decorative furniture ornaments.

The new interpretation of the classical style (neo-classical) led by the Adam Brothers followed the more slender proportions of the Pompeian interiors. Light colored walls with white plaster decoration and trim replaced the dark stained wood paneling of the earlier classical revival. The frescos found in many Pompeian interiors inspired the Adams to paint much of their furniture in light colors with delicate motifs of honeysuckles, frets, swags, rosettes, and urns.

Like a ripple in a pond, the influence of Pompeii did not stop in England; neo-classical elements can also be found in the French Louis XVI and the American Federal periods. While Louis XV and his mistress Madame Pompadour began the transition from the curved rococo style to the straight lined neo-classical and built the famous Petite Trianon, the following king, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette oversaw the completion of the transition. Near the Petite Trianon sits Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet, a group of Normandy style thatched cottages on the bank of an artificial lake. The complex boasts a small manor house, a mill, dairy, keeper’s house and farmhouse. Marie Antoinette’s interest in the country life was inspired after reading Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village (The Soothsayer of the Village). The décor was provincial and the Queen and her court played dairymaid and picnicked, as the political unrest of the subjects grew intense. So, along with the neo-classical motifs of the wreath, acanthus, and swags, seen in furniture carvings, wallpaper’s fabrics, and the decorative arts, we see the dairymaid, cows and ribbons of the country. After the French Revolution and before Napoleon’s reign came a short period called the Directoire (1789-1804). As a transitional style it kept the furniture scale of the previous Louis XV and Louis XVI periods, but the motifs changed to those associated with war. The crossed arrows, spears, drums, trumpets, and stars symbolized the climate of the country at this time. For example, a typical small table might feature crossed arrows for the base while crossed trumpets and a drum might adorn the back of a chair. As the average French citizen gained more rights and power, the use of agricultural forms also appeared, including the plow, scythe, and sheaves of wheat.

Having knowledge of furniture history and how the events of the times impacted the creation of a style is essential in the dating of antiques. However, for informed consumers, it is only one piece of the puzzle.

*Published in NFocus magazine in June 2000.


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