Creatures have always been featured in our homes

From early cave paintings to elaborately carved furniture decorations – animals are never far from our imaginations

Story and photos by Fred Taylor

It's hard to find a time in the history of humans, or even of pre-humans, when the everyday affairs of the species were not intertwined with those of other animals – as hunter, as prey or as master.

Dolphins support a 19th century mirror.

It didn't take long in the development of the human brain for gifted artisans to depict the likenesses of other creatures on the walls of the caves of Lascaux and the more recently discovered and even older art on the walls of the cave at Chauvet in France, painted more than 36,000 years ago. These ancient images were painted usually in remote spots not normally occupied, or scratched into rocks in high places.

Were the images used as worship of the creatures depicted? Were they used as part of spell casting to help the hunters with greater harvests or perhaps to bless the creatures for greater fertility? Maybe they were to honor the creatures for what they provided or perhaps the artists just liked drawing animals better than human figures. The fact is, we don't know why these early Europeans created these images of the animals that inhabited their world.

Ancient animals

Ancient civilizations took the creature feature to a higher level, bringing examples into the home with three-dimensional forms incorporated into furniture. Abundant examples of Egyptian furniture have been discovered that reveal chair legs ending in the paws of a lion, one example of which is at least 3,000 years old and can be found in the British Museum.

The basic form of the Egyptian bed remained unchanged for 2,000 years. Most of them had legs in the form of animal extremities ranging from heavy bull's legs with hooves to elegant and graceful gazelle legs to feline legs with paw and claw. This last example perhaps was in keeping with the use of panther hides as bed coverings.

The Assyrians likewise kept their animals close and a little later so did the Greeks. In fact some Greek furniture showed an amazing similarity to Assyrian objects in the use of heads, legs and feet of lions, leopards and sphinxes as furniture parts. And of course anything the Greeks could do the Romans could do better – at least for a little while until it all crumbled in the fifth century.

From then until the Middle Ages furniture decoration seemed to be either abstract or religious. With the arrival of the Renaissance furniture decoration turned from religious to classical and in 16th century France the Greek form of the caryatid, a female figure, sometimes with wings, used as a column, was revived but for the most part animal figures were left out.

Chippendale's domestication

It was not until the middle of the 18th century that Thomas Chippendale reintroduced the animal figure with the use of a long beaked fictional bird in his mirror frame design. His eclectic mix of French Rococo with Oriental architecture seemed the perfect place to use another piece of Orientalia, the claw and ball foot. This feature brought the dragon into Western furniture because the ball and claw represented the dragon clutching a pearl from oriental mythology.

From there the barn door was open and animals returned to our furniture, slowly at first but with increasing speed and popularity until the turn of the 20th century. We even have learned to call some of our woods by animal names like "tiger oak" and "bird's eye maple." Here are few examples of animal figures in 18th and 19th century American furniture.

Lascaux Horse – Early Europeans depicted the animals they lived amongst, such as this image of a horse in the Lascaux Cave in France. (photo courtesy Ministry of Culture, France)

Lascaux Horse

 

Chippendale – The feet on these Centennial Chippendale style chairs clearly show the dragon's claw clutching the pearl.

Chippendale

 

Claw and Ball

Claw and ball – This turn of the 20th century interpretation of the claw and ball foot was
featured on piano stools and parlor tables of
the period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paw foot - The hairy paw foot is an integral part of the ambiance of this Empire drop leaf table.

Paw foot

 

Heavy paw foot – A heavier paw foot can be seen supporting the weight of this Empire sideboard.

Heavy paw foot

 

Face chair – A whole collection of chairs in the late nineteenth century called "face" chairs were decorated with unidentifiable creatures simply called "grotesques." Figures in the back of a chair were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. There were many German woodworkers in America at the time and some of the figures came from Black Forest mythology. Others came from Greek and Roman mythology. Some of the gargoyles and grotesques were from Gothic legends of the Middle Ages.

Face chair

 

Grotesque – This grotesque easily recalls the image of a devil.

Grotesque

 

Dolphins – Sea creatures referred to as stylized "dolphins" support the mirror of this late nineteenth century shaving mirror. The stand is raised on paw feet. (photo at top)

 

Griffin – One of the most popular figures of the late nineteenth century was that of the mythological creature the winged griffin from Assyrian, Egyptian, Roman and Greek mythology. R. J. Horner carved these creatures but many others including Mitchell & Rammelsberg also used the figures.

Griffin

 

Sideboard – Perhaps the single greatest use of animal figures can be seen in this sideboard of the third quarter of the 19th century. It is an American piece but it is based on the European design of the Frenchman A. G. Fourdinois displayed at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. It celebrates the elements of farming hunting and fishing required to place food on the Victorian table.

Sideboard

This sideboard is replete with deer, fish, grapes, grain and fowl and lions on the columns guard the bounty. The original sideboard is illustrated in and is the central focus of the book Death In The Dining Room And Other Tales Of Victorian Culture by Kenneth Ames, formerly of Winterthur, published by Temple University Press. (Grandview Antiques and Auction)

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to info@furnituredetective.com Visit Fred's website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in PDF format. His book How To Be A Furniture Detective is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423. Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, "Identification Of Older & Antique Furniture," ($17 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m. -4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available on the website, www.furnituredetective.com.


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