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by Wendell Garrett
|The exuberant Rococo style, with its love of fantasy and ornament, made its appearance in England in the first half of the 18th century. Originating in France, the new style of decoration represented the general lightening of the heavy Baroque style of Louis XIV. From about 1700 onwards, the Rococo (originally a pejorative term) expressed a new mood of intimacy, elegance, color and movement in art and design.
The major characteristics of this imported French style in furniture -- a style breaking all the rules of reason and restraint in ornament -- were asymmetry, the use of "C" and "S" scrolls and the proliferation of a protean rock-like substance known as rocaille.
A George III ormolu-mounted and brass-inlaid mahogany dressing commode, attributed to the London workshop of John Channon and made ca. 1765, sold at Sotheby's New York on May 26 for the hammer price, with premium, of $2,205,750. The mahogany commode -- a strong serpentine form with its central recess mirrored at each side with further arches in the Gothic manner -- is one of the most richly conceived objects of case furniture surviving from the Chippendale period. The commode and its companion, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, were made for Fonthill Splendens, a Palladian mansion near Bath that was rebuilt after a 1755 fire by Alderman William Beckford (1709-1770), heir to an immense Jamaican sugar fortune.
This serpentine and bombé commode is veneered in mahogany with an unusual lustrous surface pattern that appears to shimmer as light plays across its surface. In flickering candlelight it must have resembled flowing water, an effect almost certainly intended to enhance the richly gilded bronze mounts whose allegorical subjects mirror this aquatic theme. These are designed in the Rococo manner, based on naturalistic motifs like twisting branches, pendant garlands and leaves, as well as water imagery such icicles and waterfalls adorned with crisply formed shells and feathery seaweed. This fanciful look was the antithesis to the severe Palladian style as practiced by William Kent and his contemporaries, who incorporated into their furniture the structured formality of the classical architecture of Greece and Rome.
The ormolu mounts on the commode and its companion are dominated at the front by two masks depicting nereids, the sea nymphs and daughters of Nereus, the "old man of the sea" in Greek mythology. They are supported on scrolled brackets enriched with foliage above fronds enclosing stylized shells with pendant rocaille work with shells below. The asymmetrical mount placed between them represents further sandy rocaille work encrusted with naturalistic seashells, and the scrolling winged dolphin mounts below further emphasize the watery theme.
The fitted frieze drawer is linked to corner trusses, which support it when open. The pedestals of drawers flank a recessed nest of smaller drawers, within an arched niche. Similar arched recesses and carrying-handles appear on the side of the commode. The corner mounts comprise winged satyr heads on scallop-shell shoulders from which water drips over palm and laurel sprays to form watery splashes at the feet, where scalloped acanthus cartouches conceal the castors. The back plates of the large handles are formed of winged cartouches with acanthus foliage. The very naturalistic shell and rock-work garlands can also be seen on the contemporary silver being made by Huguenot silversmiths in London.
Throughout the first half of the 18th century, France set the fashion for grand English furnishings. The large number of foreign artists and craftsmen working in London helped to propagate the French taste. From the 1730s, irregularity and asymmetry combined with elegance and lightness were considered the essence of beauty. Nature triumphed inside the house, where flowers and foliage provided the principle decorative motifs for furnishings and furniture.
During the second quarter of the 18th century, as fashionable London expanded westwards into Mayfair, St. Martin's Lane took over for the area around St. Paul's Cathedral as the center of the cabinetmaking trade and became the breeding ground for the new style. Both the cabinetmakers Thomas Chippendale and John Channon worked in St. Martin's Lane. Channon traded at the Sign of the Cabinet and was one of the subscribers to Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1754). The publication of the Director was announced as "Being a New Book of Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and [French] Modern Tastes, as improved by the politest and most able artists." The significance of the Director was that, with its 161 plates, it was the first furniture pattern book to cover the entire range of household furniture.
Furniture design in general was affected by the fact that tough, close-grained mahogany replaced walnut as the fashionable wood during the second half of the century. The new wood could take far more stress than walnut, resulting in a variety of contorted shapes and serpentine forms.
During the 1760s, many of the Rococo pattern books were reissued, including Chippendale's Director, as the revolutionary Neoclassicism made its appearance. The battle of the fashionable styles is evident in 1766 when David Garrick and George Colman mock the Rococo style in The Clandestine Marriage: "Ay, here's none of your straight lines here -- but all taste -- zig-zag -- crinkum-crankum -- in and out -- right and left -- so and again -- twisting and turning like a worm."
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.