The Rococo style flourished in western Europe from about 1700 to 1780. The term comes from a French word for a fanciful rock or shell design. It implies a refined, elegant feeling and style.
Rococo found its fullest expression in France, where the leading representatives were the painters François Boucher, Jean Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau. They worked primarily for royal and aristocratic clients. Their paintings differed greatly in style and subject matter from those of the preceding Baroque period. A typical Baroque painting was created on a heroic and grand scale, and usually presented Christian religious subjects. Rococo paintings were intimate in scale and delicate in manner. They often portrayed scenes from classical mythology. Rococo artists also created a new category of painted called the fête galante. These paintings showed gatherings of elegantly dressed figures in parks and gardens.
Outside France, there were other artists during this period who worked in a bright, lively style characteristic of Rococo. They included Giovanni Battista Tieppolo in Italy, and Thomas Gainsborough in England.
The ornate and decorative style of Rococo was also applied to architecture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and opera and theatre scenery. Rococo architecture developed in France about 1720 during the Régence (1715-1723) - the period when Philip, Duke of Orleans was Regent to the infant Louis XV - and spread to other countries during the next sixty years.
There was, in the Rococo period, the development of a style of decoration in which most of the familiar themes of the Baroque reappeared but were treated with a lightness and an asymmetrical freedom which rendered them suitable for the decoration of rooms and apartments conceived on a much less grand scale. The old division of the wall into panels was retained but the lines of the mouldings lost their stiffness and were broken into curves, or garlanded with flowers or terminated in elaborate scrolls or shell-work. Mirrors were used lavishly, and stucco and tiles were sometimes applied instead of wood panelling. Coloured marble or imitation marble was used for floors and chimneypieces.
Chairs, mirrors, picture frames all lost their old square shapes, and the cornice over a door might dissolve before one’s eyes into an Oriental landscape, or a bundle of corn tied up with ribbons. Rococo architecture reached its greatest splendour in the palaces, monasteries, and churches of southern Germany and Austria.
The Chinese and the Gothick Tastes
The Rococo style was never fully accepted in England, but many interiors incorporated aspects of it, particularly through plasterwork, smaller decorative pieces such as mirrors and porcelain, and furniture. Ceilings were sometimes painted, and decorative plasterwork was generally in white and gold. Stucco had been almost unknown in England prior to the 18th-century, and now became very fashionable. It was ideally suited to the sinuous scrollwork of a Rococo ceiling. In particular, Rococo offshoots - the “Chinese Taste” and the “Gothick Taste” were all the rage in England. Books were published which advised gentlemen how they might improve their homes by decorating in the Italian (Palladian), the Gothick, or the Chinese manner. By the middle of the century houses like Claydon, where all these styles can be seen, was not uncommon.
The “Chinese Taste”, sometimes referred to as chinoiserie, was a style of decoration based on romanticized, pseudo-Oriental motifs. It reached its height in England in the 1740s and 1750s. The “Gothick Taste” was a style of architecture and furniture very loosely based on medieval Gothic architecture. The gazebos, cottages and summerhouses which formed the principal output of the Gothick architects were, in fact, ordinary 18th-century cottages on to which were tacked a row of castellations and some plaster gargoyles. Appearing in the 1730s, it was almost entirely and English phenomenon. Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s London house decorated entirely in this style in the 1740s, was the most influential Gothick house of its day. These specialised styles were normally seen primarily in furniture and decoration - for example, in the very popular hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and lacquered furniture - and hardly ever as an integral part of a decorating scheme.
Rococo was not a hard and fast style which flourished in one short period; it was rather a mood which recurred over the ensuing centuries. After its popularity had declined in Europe it suddenly reappeared in England and produced the Brighton Pavilion. During the Victorian era it disappeared, only to return again at the end of the century in Art Nouveau. But it never was so expressive as in the mid-18th century when its blossoming coincided with the work of major craftsmen such as Thomas Chippendale, whose name became universally associated with English Rococo furniture.
Thomas Chippendale was the best-known English furniture designer, and the publication of his Director in the middle of the century made him a household name. Most of the designs in it were Rococo, and there were also some of the chinoiserie type known as Chinese Chippendale. He also used Gothick window-tracery, pinnacles and crockets to furniture that was otherwise classical in design.
It was as this time in France that draped dressing tables appeared. In keeping with the Rococo style, they had bouffant skirts and were decorated with ribbons and flowers. Sometimes they even had their own canopies to complement the existing furnishings.
Rococo Furniture in brief:
- Influence of French Rococo, Chinese and Gothick;
- Mahogany main wood;
- Carved cabriole legs;
- Claw and ball feet;
- Fretwork and Chinese motifs in backs of chairs;
- Fabrics are brocade, leather, velour.
- In France the Rococo style used delicate colours such as pink, white, yellow, azure blue and ivory mixed with cream and gold;
- Appliqué on clear colours was fashionable.
Rugs often Oriental in design - rugs with small patterns and in Chinese designs on blue grounds were typical.
Claydon House, Polsden Lacy (the Rococo Room), Powderham Castle (The Staircase Hall, The White Drawing Room, The First Library), Hagley Hall (The Dining Room, The Drawing Room), Belvoir Castle (Elizabeth Saloon), Victorian and Albert Museum (The Music Room from Norfolk House).
The Chinese Taste Buildings
Claydon House, Pagoda at Kew, Woburn Abbey (Chinese Dairy), Shugborough (The Chinese Tea House), Nostell Priory (Chinese Bedroom), Saltram House (Chinese Bedroom).
The Gothick Taste Buildings
Arbury Hall, Strawberry Hill House, Croft Castle, Laycock Abbey, Lee Priory (The Library), The Victorian & Albert Museum.
© Adrienne Chinn - London