Home and Furniture Figurals
By Karen Parr-Moody
There is a long history of figural ornamentation in architecture, with the human body glorified in its various forms. In furniture and home décor, such ornamentation also existed long before the modern era of clean lines and simplicity.
At GasLamp, these lovely vestiges of the past can be glimpsed, often in brass figural ornaments added to furniture, or in stand-alone items such as door knockers.
From Greek and Roman times, bodies were carved in stone and marble for the façades of buildings, typically depicting religious ideas. During the Renaissance, images of the human body were seen as reclining nudes, dancing bodies, and other such representations.
In the decorative arts, Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the official mistress of France’s King Louis XV, revived interest in figures from Greek mythology. The king, a man more intrigued by hunting than the arts, was influenced in this arena by Pompadour’s exquisite tastes.
In 1748 the ruins of Pompeii were discovered; Pompadour sent a mission to Italy to study beauty of its ancient art. The envoy was specifically expected to find ideas for a new furniture style – and it did. The style, also called Classical Revival (1750-1815), later came to be known as Louis XVI, even though it began years before he took the throne. Carved details included acanthus leaves, rose of laurel leaves, and egg-and-dart molding. Grecian human figures were also seen as decorative motifs on furniture.
On the heels of this era was the influence of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, which produced a new kind of antiquity to imitate. The following fashion in furniture, called Empire Style, lasted from about 1800 until 1820, and included Egyptian motifs galore.
In the 80 years from 1820 till 1900, France revived all of her old styles, one by one. Grecian details, in particular, can be seen in this gorgeous, marble-topped French cabinet (photo, right). Note the Grecian urn on the front and the various brass and wood acanthus leaf details ($1,129.95; Booth B-219). The charming human figural is seen on front corners, depicted in brass.
The romantic effect of ancient history was seen not only in French furniture of the Louis XVI and Empire styles. It was also widely copied in Victorian furniture, where classical figures can be seen carved in wood or added on as brass ornamentation.
In the photo, left, is a brass cornice that once belonged to a billiard table, circa 1880. Note the acanthusleaves that swirl around the classical face. This piece is of the quality of a fine bronze statue, and is a work of art in itself.
While door knockers have been used for centuries as a necessity before electricity made “buzzing” an everyday occurrence, the Victorians took the art of it to new visual heights. Building on a trend that had begun during the Renaissance, when the items became more fanciful, Victorians created grand designs, particularly on the homes of the wealthy. The bearded, god-like face on this brass knocker is such an example. With its flora and fauna design, and its look of mythology, it is a derivative of the Grecian world that inspired Madame de Pompadour ($50; Booth B-250).
All trends eventually trickle down to the masses, and in this unusual console from New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, left, lies a whisper of France’s figural glory days ($250). The wood and marble-topped console bears brass figurals at its cornices. Their facial features are bold, and they wear flowing, curled hair topped by a “crown” of acanthus leaves.
Looking for antique figural furniture is a bit like a scavenger hunt. One might find full-bodied women carved from hardwood on the legs of a table. Empire-style soldiers might support an oak desk. Grecian, draped women might flank a credenza. Or perhaps a goddess might be fashioned into a door handle to grace a grand entry. Whatever it is, such details are loaded with the beauty of many bygone eras.