In the 18th century, architecture was the most important of the arts and for a man of wealth his house and furniture presented a spectacular means of exhibiting good taste. The interiors and furnishings of the many splendid mansions built in the course of the century became the direct concern of architects, professional and amateur. Never before had English architects seriously devoted themselves to furniture design or exerted so strong an influence on the products of the cabinetmakers' and carvers' workshops as they were now to do. But it was the taste of the owners of these fine country houses which created the demand and set the standard.
With the accession to the throne in 1714 of George I, Elector of Hanover, the Whigs established themselves as the new directors of taste -- a taste audacious enough to claim moral righteousness as its justification. "He who aspires to the character of a man breeding and politeness is careful to form his judgments of arts and sciences upon the right models of perfection," Lord Shaftesbury declared.
European furniture of the first half of the 18th century was dominated by French designers and craftsmen who developed the Rococo style (The term "Rococo" was a 19th-century invention, a combination of "rocaille," shellwork and "barocco," used at first as a pejorative term of abuse for an outmoded style.) It was now the new decorative schemes of the Court of Louis XV and the fresh charms of French "rocaille" that were to arouse admiration and encourage imitators in England.
Rococo provided a new freedom by comparison with the formal symmetrical grandeur of the earlier Baroque age. Lively C- and S- shaped scrolls interlaced with flowers, uneven rockwork, carefully imbalanced sprigs and garlands and delicately poised figures formed a decorative background for picturesque motifs. Rocky caves were inhabited by dragons and other improbable reptiles; cascading waterfalls were embellished with shells and waving plant fronds; chubby putti disported themselves among naturalistic festoons and bocages -- all of these wildly romantic compositions being intertwined and edged by scrolling cartouches and wavy-edged leaves.
By the 1730s, walnut was being superseded as the primary cabinetmaking wood by mahogany, a timber imported from the West Indies that had dark richness and great strength and versatility. Mahogany was well suited to furniture in the French Rococo style, with its crisply carved and strongly defined ornament. The gradual introduction of mahogany into English furniture-making coincided with a new breath of this imported foreign style.
The first half of the 18th century saw unprecedented advances in the quality of furniture workmanship and in the development of the applied arts generally. During this period the upholsterer rose in importance from being a mere artisan to the status of highly regarded craftsman, whose prestige was at least level with that of the cabinetmaker.
Beds and their furnishings were the most important items in any household and state beds had cast sums lavished upon them. Chairs were thickly stuffed, with rounded contours and down cushions; they were given colorful refinement by close-nailing, carved and often gilded woodwork and coverings of silk damask.
A series of pattern books were published in London in the 1740s containing lively Rococo ornamental motifs and furniture designs, showing furniture-makers how to combine form and ornament. The use of picturesque themes in interior decoration furniture design had come to England and the revival there of the Gothic style was an early expression of this romantic indulgence.
Unlike the Rococo style, 18th-century Gothic first appeared as an architectural style, introduced in a spirit of mock medievalism. After the middle of the century, Gothic features were incorporated in many fashionable houses, and by this time both cabinet-pieces and chairs sometimes included Gothic motifs, such as ogival or pointed arches, pinnacles and crockets.
More readily introduced into schemes of interior decoration and particularly into designs for carvers' pieces were the exotic chinoiserie motifs which presented another aspect of the taste for the picturesque. Oriental birds, imaginary pagoda-like structures, bells, latticework and Chinese figures provided themes not only for porcelain decorators and goldsmiths, but also for stuccoists, woodcarvers and cabinetmakers. These romantic visions of the charms of the Far East were derived from the decoration on Oriental porcelain and on lacquer screens and cabinets which had long been popular in England. Chinese wallpaper also provided a source of inspiration.
By the mid-18th century, the freedom and originality that the Rococo permitted was generally accepted. Cabinetmakers were now combining fluent lines with carved Rococo features on tables, chairs and case furniture. Mahogany was the most popular wood, a tropical wood which produced a fine figure for veneering and also was crisp for the carver. Large numbers of cabinetmaking firms existed in London, with the principal ones centered round the northern boundary of the City of Westminster, particularly in and around St. Martin's Lane. And it was to St. Martin's Lane that Thomas Chippendale moved in 1753 when his success as a cabinetmaker enabled him to expand his workshop.
Thomas Chippendale's workshop, while smaller than that of some of his neighbors in St. Martin's Lane, was nevertheless an important establishment where he employed craftsmen for every branch of the trade. Himself a man of ideas and energy more than a cabinetmaker wholly immersed in the technicalities of his craft, it was, in fact, his enterprise in publishing an extensive set of furniture designs in the new Rococo manner which brought him publicity in his lifetime and ensures his fame today.
Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director appeared in 1754; it contained 160 engraved plates and apart from the first few describing the five classical orders in architecture, all were devoted to furniture. They illustrated the full range of furniture of the day and reflected an uninhibited delight in exotic motifs and sinuous curves. Both Chinese and Gothic elements were added to the Rococo vocabulary; often they were mixed together in a hotch-potch of romantic fantasy.
Chippendale's Director was the first design book to cover all kinds of household furniture and its success was so great that "Chippendale" became the generic label for practically all mid-18th-century mahogany furniture. Chippendale himself was merely one among many businessmen and cabinetmakers from whose workshops in and around St. Martin's Lane furniture of consistent high quality emanated during the 1750s and 1760s.
The Director was, in fact, less a collection of original designs than an overview of the range of furniture and the variety of styles available to the gentry during the middle years of the 18th century. Chippendale had been able to draw upon existing Rococo ornamental designs and his own experience of contemporary fashions. In that sense he did not introduce a new style, but he was the first issue engravings in which Rococo forms and motifs were applied with such freedom to cabinet furniture and chairs, and his plates did contribute some new and original ideas.
Chairs were more decorative then ever. Typical of the period were those with carved back splats, surmounted by gracefully serpentine top-rails, as well as carved knees and cabriole legs. The carved decoration might take the form of Rococo cartouche shapes and scrolling acanthus or might incorporate Gothic arches, Chinese fretwork or interlacing ribbons. "French" chairs, with upholstered backs as well as seats, had carved cartouche-shaped backs and crisp leafy decoration on legs and seat-rails. In some the lustrous dark mahogany was contrasted by colorful damask upholstery, while others were enriched with gilding. At this time the trade of upholsterer equaled that of cabinetmaker in importance.
The publication of the first two editions of Chippendale's Director did more than stimulate a fashion -- it immediately provoked competition. In the course of the late 1750s, Thomas Johnson (a hitherto unknown London carver and designer) issued a series of surrealist engraved designs, which included a wealth of ornamental motifs. Features from Aesop's Fables appeared among spiky branches, wiry scrolls, fountains and dripping waterfalls. Chinese figures, animals and birds, masks, dolphins and putti appeared among the rhythmical scrolls and leafy branches inspiring the last energetic phase of Rococo in England, seeming far removed from the gentle manner and flaccid curves of early Rococo.
Among other cabinetmakers to publish designs for furniture at about the same time was the firm of Ince and Mayhew. The Universal System of Household Furniture appeared as a book in 1762, intended to compete with Chippendale's and Thomas Johnson's publications. The appearance in the same year of the third edition of Chippendale's Director, provided with 105 new plates, confirmed the continuing popularity of bounding rhythmical lines and writhing forms.
But Chippendale also included in this latest work some new designs that hint at a coming change of taste. Among them were designs for pedestals and, in particular, for a commode that included features of classical derivation, such as rams' heads, key patterns and lion paws. The airy fantasy of the Rococo style had reached the climax of its development and critics began to speak out against its extravagant sinuous forms and to demand a return to a noble, more sober Classicism.
The reaction against the Rococo found its focus in a revaluation of the legacy of classical antiquity. In 1738 the first organized excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum started, and in 1755 reliable archeological information concerning that city became freely available with the publication of a sumptuously illustrated volume. At about the time that enthusiasm for the Rococo style was beginning to flag, designers were able to draw upon a whole host of new decorative motifs from the rational elegance of Neoclassical designs.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.