Glossary of Antique Terms
Acanthus: Ornament representing stylized form of thick, scallop-edged Acanthus spinosus leaf. Of classical origin, It has been used extensively as carved decoration on furniture.
Acroterion Pedestal intended to support carved flowers, busts or urns on the center or lower points of a pediment.
Amphora Classical two-handled storage jar later adopted as a neoclassical decorative motif.
Anthemion Decorative motif of Greek origin, the radiating pattern of which resembles the honeysuckle flower and leaves.
Applied decoration Decoration, normally carved, laid onto the surface of a piece of furniture.
Apron Ornamental structure beneath the seat-rail of a chair or settee. Also used below the drawers or doors, or between the legs of commodes.
Arabesque Literally “Arabian”, a scrolling and interlacing pattern of branches, leaves, flowers and scrollwork of Moorish origin. Found on sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Spanish and Portuguese furniture, it later spread to Northern Europe.
Arcading Carved architectural ornament suggesting arches. Often used on chair-back and applied on panels.
Armoire Large cupboard with one or two doors, originating in late-sixteenth-century France.
Astragal Small semicircular convex moulding commonly used as a glazing-bar on furniture. The reverse of scotia, and smaller than torus.
Athenienne Basin on a tripods stand copied from an example found at Pompeii. Popular French Neoclassical and Empire form.
Aumbry Late-medieval doored cupboard used to store food.
Backstool Form of stool with a back developed in the late sixteenth century. By the mid-sixteenth century it had developed into a single chair.
Baluster Turned, vase-shaped vertical post. A balustrade is a row of balusters with a joining rail at the top.
Bantam work Incised lacquer work named after Bantam, a province of Dutch Java, and commonly found on Dutch and English furniture. The design is cut into a black lacquer ground and is also known as cutwork.
Barley Twist Carving which imparts a twisting effect to the piece it is applied to. Sometimes applied to bed posts, as well as the legs & stretchers of some tables & chairs. Introduced to the UK in 1661, it became popular around the time of Queen Anne c.1702-1714. It enjoyed a revival during the Victorian period.
Bergere Wing armchair with filled-in sides from French designs of c.1725. Early models were caned, later ones upholstered.
Birdcage Hinged columnar mechanism used on tables which allows the top to revolve or tip vertically. Also known as a squirrel, this device was particularly popular on English and American pieces.
Bracket Right-angled fitting acting as support to a horizontal member.
Bracket foot A foot extending from each side of a corner to a centre point at the base. Often shaped or carved.
Breakfront, or broken front Furniture in which the front line is interrupted. Usually, the central vertical section projects slightly in front of the side sections. Commonly found on eighteenth-century bookcases and cabinets.
Buffet Side- or serving-table used from medieval times. In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England, buffet was synonymous with court cupboard. Towards the end of the eighteenth century sideboards replaced buffets in the dining-room, although the buffet enjoyed renewed popularity during the nineteenth-century Gothic revival.
Bun foot Round, turned and sometimes ‘squashed’ foot commonly used on William and Mary case furniture.
Bureau Desk popular in late seventeenth-century England and France distinguished by its sloping fall-front. The flap is hinged at the base and rests on lopers when open, folds up at an angle when closed. Base often contains drawers. In America, used to describe a bedroom chest-of-drawers.
Bureau à cylindre Popular late eighteenth-century desk with curved lid which slides beneath the underside of the top when opened. Also known as a roll-top desk. Occasionally the cylinder is of tambour form, i.e. made from slats of wood joined by a canvas backing.
Bureau plat Flat writing-desk in the form of a large, elongated table, often with two or three drawers underneath. May have slides above the drawers to provide more writing space.
Burled (American) or burr (British) wood veneer. Popular from the seventeenth century. Made from the tumescent growth of certain trees (notably walnut). Valued for unusual but attractive grain.
Butterfly hinge Hinge with two flared plates on either side of the join resembling butterfly wings. These replaced butt hinges on high-quality walnut furniture.
“C” and “S” scrolls Based on the letters ‘C’ and ‘S’, these scrolls were popular Rococo motifs.
Cabochon Smooth round or oval raised decoration popular in sixteenth-century strapwork or, in the eighteenth century, surrounded by formalized acanthus leaves. Used with shellwork, it became a popular motif on Georgian cabriole legs.
Cabriole leg Stylized form of animal hind leg of elongated “s” shape. Popular in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe.
Canapé Type of eighteenth-century French sofa.
Canted A beveled or chamfered surface; used to refer to furniture legs inclining outwards.
Canterbury Mid-eighteenth-century low supper trolley more commonly known in its late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-century form; a stand with vertical compartments to hold sheet music.
Capital Head or crowning feature of a column or pilaster.
Caquetoire/euse Armchair of sixteenth-century French design, with a high narrow back and a trapezoidal seat.
Carcase The main body or understructure of a piece of furniture, over which a layer of veneer or other covering is applied.
Cartonnier Eighteenth-century cabinet of French design.
Cartouche Motif with curved or rolled edges suggesting a scroll shape or a piece of paper with curling edges. Often used as a surround for crests and inscriptions.
Caryatid Decorative support in the form of a female figure. Derived from Greek architecture, the caryatid has been popular since the Renaissance and enjoyed particular favour in the Rococo and Neoclassical periods. Male caryatids are less common and are called telamones.
Case Furniture which proved storage space, as opposed to seat furniture.
Cassone Italian dowry chests often enhanced with carved, gilt, inlaid or painted decoration.
Cavetto moulding Concave moulding, a quarter circle in cross-section, also known as hollow chamfering; opposite of ovolo moulding.
Cellaret Deep, lockable box for dry storing wine bottles which dates from the eighteenth century. Free-standing or incorporated in a sideboard.
Chamfer A canted surface produced by beveling off an angle.
Chevron Zigzag pattern of Anglo Saxon derivation often used on medieval, Gothic revival and Art Deco pieces.
Chinoiserie General term for European adaptation of Oriental designs popular during late seventeenth century, Rococo and Regency periods. Motifs used include pagodas, fretwork, Chinese-style finials, mandarins, coolies, birds, landscapes and rivers.
Claw-and-ball foot Foot of Oriental origin composed of talons holding a ball; dragon’s claw replaced by eagle’s claw in Europe.
Cock-beading Moulding dating from the early eighteenth century.
Commode French form of low chest-of-drawers, originally intended for the drawing-room, dating from the mid-seventeenth century and very popular during the eighteenth century. Became a term for bedroom cupboards in the nineteenth century.
Console table Form of side-table supported by wall brackets with two front legs.
Coquillage From of decorative shell motif which became popular during the Baroque and Rococo periods.
Corner cupboard Late seventeenth-century cupboard designed to fit into the corner of a room. Either hanging or free-standing.
Cornice Highest part of three principal members of the entablature. Also horizontal moulding projecting from the top of case pieces such as bookcases and cabinets.
Cornucopia Classical motif in the shape of a goat’s horn out of which spill fruit, vegetables and flowers. A symbol of fertility and abundance popular during the Baroque/Rococo periods. Also called horn-of-plenty.
Credenza Sideboard with doors often surmounted by drawers. Commonly used to describe Victorian side cabinets.
Cresting Carved ornament on top of furniture, i.e. a mirror frame or the top-rail of a chair, headboard or footboard of a bed or along the back-rail of a day-bed.
Crocket Popular Gothic motif often in the shape of a leaf or flower which projects from the surface of chairs and some case pieces.
Crossbanding Thin strips of decorative cross-grained veneer.
Cross-member Horizontal, supporting rail.
Curl mahogany Wood cut from the fork in branches of a mahogany tree. Prized for its mottled or feathery grain. Known as crotch mahogany in America.
Davenport Chest-of-drawers with a sloping desk on top which became increasingly popular from 1830. Drawers open on one side, with sham-fronted ones on the other.
Dentil motif Feature of classical architecture which became a popular furniture motif in the seventeenth century. Consists of a series of equally spaced square or rectangular tooth-like blocks.
Diaper motif Trellis of repeated square or lozenge shapes sometimes enclosing carved decoration.
Dovetail Right-angles joint held together by interlocking fan-shaped tenons. From the eighteenth century, lapped or secret dovetails were often used on high-quality furniture to conceal construction.
Dowel Wooden pin used to secure mortise-and-tenon joints
Ebenistes Furnture maker who specializes in the art of veneering.
Egg-and-dart moulding A principal decorative motif of classical origin consisting of oval or egg shapes alternating with leafy arrowheads
Encoignure A French form of standing corner cupboard often with a marble top.
Escutcheon Metal plate fitted around a keyhole for protection and decoration
Étagère Set of free-standing or wall shelves used to display objects. Sometimes with doors or drawers.
Fauteuil French form of open-armed chair with upholstered back and seat.
Festoon, or Swag Renaissance and Neoclassical motif in the shape of a suspended loop of drapery or a garland of fruit and flowers.
Filigree Lace-lie ornament made from delicately curled and twisted gold or silver wire.
Finial Projecting ornament which can take many forms, including those of a ball, flame, flower, acorn, pineapple or vase.
Fluting Decoration formed by making parallel, semicircular grooves; used on furniture since the sixteenth century.
Fretwork Interlocking geometrical designs cut from thin wood and used ornamentally without contrasting backing in open fretwork and with backing in blind fretwork.
Gilding Ornamental coating of goldleaf or gold dust, used alone or along with other forms of ornament, such as enameling, to cover a piece of furniture.
Girandole Elaborate candelabrum associated with Rococo and Neoclassical design. Also refers to heavily carved or glided sconces or wall-brackets with mirrored backplates to reflect the candlelight.
Grisaille Painting in shades of black, grey and white which attempts to imitate marble relief ornament. Frequently applied to furniture during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods.
Grotesque Fanciful decoration comprising a combination of foliage, urns, animals, mythical creature, etc. Term derived from Roman wall-paintings found in Nero’s Golden House, the rooms of which became known as ‘grottoes’ when excavated in c.1500.
Gueridon French candlestand or table for a candelabrum dating from the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, usually in the shape of a footed column, pedestal or other central piece supporting a circular tray. Often too the form of Negro figures or blackamoors.
Guilloche Classical architectural motif forming a continuous figure-of-eight pattern. It became a popular furniture decoration from the sixteenth century onwards, especially during the Neoclassical period.
Hadley chest Often elaborately carved rectangular dowry chest consisting of a set of drawers surmounted by a lidded chest. Made around Hadley, Massachusetts, c.1675-1740.
Halving joint Way of creating a flat join in crossing timbers by cutting out a half thickness from each piece.
Highboy Tall chest made up of a chest-of-drawers set on a lowboy, sometimes standing on cabriole legs. The highboy, often made with a matching lowboy, enjoyed widespread popularity in eighteenth-century America.
Hunting board Sideboard or long table of the American South which, when first devised in the eighteenth century was sued for serving drinks to hunters.
Inlay Form of decoration which involves cutting small pieces of ivory, precious metals, mother-of-pearl or wood which are then fitted into carved-out recesses of the same shape on a solid piece of furniture to create a picture or geometric design. This differs from marquetry which uses applied veneers, not sole pieces of wood.
Intarsia Elaborate pictorial marquetry or inlaid paneling, used in Renaissance Italy and also sixteenth-century Germany
Japanning Term used for various Western methods which attempted to imitate Oriental lacquer. Coats of heat-hardened spirit varnishes and, later, cheap oil-based varnishes were types of japanning applied to furniture from the 1660s onwards.
Key pattern Repeating motif of straight lines, usually at right angles, derived from classical Greek architecture; became a much-used border ornament. One example is the popular Greek key pattern.
Klismos Classical Greek chair with saber legs, the front ones curving forwards and the back ones backwards. The chair-back has a concave top-rail attached to verticals. Popular Neoclassical form in Europe and America.
Lacca Italian lacquer much used on the colorful, painted furniture of eighteenth-century Italy; can refer to true Oriental lacquer as well as japanning. Imitated more cheaply in lacca contrafatta or arte povera.
Lacquer Oriental varnish made from tree gum. Its high-gloss finish became fashionable in Europe in the seventeenth century. Mother-of-pearl, coral and metals were often inlaid in the lacquer ground to create a decorative effect.
Lambrequin Fringe-like motif imitating fabric swag. The term originally referred to the scarf worn by a knight across his helmet.
Linenfold Form of carving which imitated vertical folds of drapery. Probably Flemish in origin, it was widely used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to decorate furniture and wall paneling.
Lopers Poles, normally rectangular, which could be pulled out from the sides of a cabinet to support the flap-top of desks.
Lunette Semicircular or half-moon shape making up a piece of furniture, often filled with carved decoration, Lunettes carved in this way originated in the seventeenth century and enjoyed renewed popularity during the nineteenth-century Jacobean revival.
Marquetry A type of ornamental veneer comprising shaped pieces of wood or other substances which form a mosaic, or kind of jigsaw-puzzle, in floral, landscape, arabesque or other patterns; if a geometric pattern, called parquetry. It differs from inlay, in which a cutout recess on a solid piece of furniture is filled with decoration.
Menuisier Furniture-maker specializing in carved pieces; usually applied to craftsmen in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century France.
Mitre Joint Corner joint used from the seventeenth century onwards. Pieces of wood are cut at an angle so that when joined they form a right angle. They are then glued and/or nailed together.
Monopodium Classical pedestal support composed of an animal head and a single leg; widely used in the early nineteenth century.
Mortise-and-tenon Joint formed by cutting a hole or mortise, in one piece of wood into which is fitted a projecting piece, or tenon, from another. Sometimes glued or held firm by a wooden dowel. Used since sixteenth century.
Ogee A continuous double curve in the shape of an ‘S’, referred to by Hogarth as ‘the line of beauty’; used for mouldings. If concave above and convex below, called an ogee moulding, or cyma recta; if convex above and concave below, a reverse ogee moulding, or cyma reversa.
Ormolu From the French or moulu, or ground gold; also known as gilt-bronze or bronze dore. Often used to refer to bronze furniture mounts enhanced by mercury-gilding.
Ovolo moulding Classical convex moulding consisting of repeated oval shapes. Much used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it enjoyed a revival in Victorian England. The opposite of cavetto moulding.
Oyster veneer Late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century veneer, made from symmetrically arranged cross-sections of small branches or roots from trees such as walnut, olive, laburnum and kingwood. The name comes from the resultant patter of the grain, which resembles oyster shells. Primarily a Dutch decorative technique.
Pad foot Club foot resting on an integral disc.
Paintbrush foot American term for Spanish foot.
Palmette Fan-shaped pattern derived from the shape of a palm-tree frond. Neoclassical motif.
Papier mache Technique using sand, chalk, size and paper pulp which, when dry, forms a hard substance; later moulded to form furniture. Popular in nineteenth-century Europe and America.
Patera Round or oval medallion motif frequently incorporating fluting, leaves or flower petals in its design. Often carved, but also painted or inlaid into Neoclassical furniture.
Paw foot Leg terminal in the shape of an animal’s paw. Originating in ancient Egypt, and used as well in classical Greece and Rome, this form enjoyed a revival from the late seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. A variation is the hairy-paw foot.
Pier-glass Tall, narrow mirror with a frame originally placed between windows to enhance light coming into a room. An accompaniment to a pier-table or commode in the seventeenth century.
Pietre dure Form of decorative work using a variety of semiprecious stones perfected in Italy c.1600; if only a single type of stone is used, it is correctly called pietra dura. This method proved costly so a cheaper imitation, Scagliola, was often used.
Pilaster Architectural term for a flattened column attached to a façade for decoration rather than structural support.
Prie-dieu A late-eighteenth-century, but commonly nineteenth-century low-seated armless chair with a high back and wide top-rail on which to rest a prayer book. Often upholstered with Berlin woodwork.
Rail A horizontal piece in the framework of a chair such as a seat-rail meant to support vertical members.
Rebate joint Formed by cutting a groove, wedge or, most commonly, rectangular section along the edge of one piece of wood and fitting it with another, matching piece of wood; can be glued or nailed. Used in cheaper furniture. Also known as a rabbet joint.
Reeding Parallel, convex reed moulding derived from decoration used on classical columns. It is the opposite of fluting.
Relief Forms of moulded, carved or stamped decoration raised from the surface of a piece of furniture forming a pattern in high or low relief.
Rocaille Rococo form of decoration characteristic of the genre pittoresque using abstract shell-and rockwork in its design.
Sabre leg Shaped like a saber, either round-or square-sectioned, and gently tapering to the ground. Used on the Greek klismos and revived on eighteenth-and nineteenth-century seat furniture.
Sarcophagus A rectangular, coffin-shaped box taper to a smaller size at the bottom. Can be used as a cellaret or tea caddy etc.
Sconce A bracketed wall-light comprising a decorative, often reflective, backplate and candleholders. Very fashionable from the late seventeenth century. Rococo versions are often called girandoles.
Scotia Semicircular concave moulding. The reverse of an astragal moulding.
Scroll foot Chair foot which terminates in a tight scrolled form; a popular eighteenth-century English foot.
Secretaire Eighteenth-century desk with drawers hidden by the writing surface. In England and America, known as a secretary.
Secretaire a abattant Tall French writing-desk, the top part of which resembles an armoire, having a door at its base. The top is often flap-fronted to provide a large writing surface when open.
Singerie Decoration depicting monkeys (singes) in human costumes and often comical situations. Associated with Chinoiserie, it was popular during the Rococo period.
Single chair or side-chair A chair without arms.
Slipper foot Flat, elongated foot which differs from the snake foot in that its end is more pointed. Often found on Queen Anne furniture.
Spanish foot Formed from a scroll turning backwards in a curve at the bottom. Popular in the late seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries. Also called a knurl foot, Braganza foot, and, in America, a paintbrush foot.
Spice ChestAmerican form of case furniture taking the form of a chest mounted on a stand made during the eighteenth century to hold spices. The upper part has doors which open to reveal many drawers. These are often grand, lockable pieces reflecting the value of spices at the time.
Spindle Slim, turned member which may be of constant width or decoratively turned.
Splat Central flat support between a chair’s seat and top-rail.
Stile Upright supporting post on a piece of furniture.
Strapwork Originating in the sixteenth century in the Netherlands, this pattern of interlaced strap-like bands was extensively used in Northern European furniture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; enjoyed a revival in the nineteenth century.
Stretcher Strengthening or stabilizing rail which runs horizontally between furniture legs, often forming X, H or Y shapes.
Style etrusque Neoclassical attempt to imitate the decoration on Etruscan vases. Much use of contrasting encaustic colour. Popular from 1760 and again in the 1840’s. Tallboy Called a chest-chest until the eighteenth century; this high chest of drawers has more drawers below than on top.
Tambour Thin strips of wood glued to canvas backing to form a flexible sheet used to conceal storage areas, for example in the lid of a bureau a cylindre.
Term Statue or bust representing the upper part of the body, usually without arms, terminating below in a pedestal or pillar which tapers towards the base. Also known as terminus or herm. If load-bearing, also known as caryatid terminals.
Tester Wooden canopy which projects over the top of the bed, known as a half-tester if supported only by headboard and footposts.
Tip-top or snap-top Form of pedestal table in which the top is hinged to the base and tilts vertically when not in use. Became popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. In America, known as a tilt-top.
Tole Tinware which has been decorated by means of japanning: known in America as toleware.
Tongue-and-groove Straight or right-angled joint made by cutting a groove into one piece of wood into which fits the projecting groove from another. Used from the nineteenth century onwards.
Top-rail The uppermost horizontal rail on a chair-back.
Torchere A portable stand for a lamp or candle, often fashioned like a tall table with a small top.
Torus Like an astragal moulding, only thicker, this form of moulding is often used at the end of columns, frequently entwined with foliage.
Trefoil Form of Gothic ornament in the shape of three symmetrical leaves. A quatrefoil has four leaves, a cinquefoil five. Much used in the nineteenth-century Gothic revival.
Trifid foot Foot with three toe-shaped sections. Popular on early Philadelphia chairs.
Trompe l’oeil Painted decoration with natural shadows designed to ‘deceive the eye’ into believing they are real, i.e., three-dimensional.
Turning Method of shaping wood by revolving it on a lathe. Different types of turning are created by altering the pressure of the lathe.
X-frame chair An X-shaped, often folding, structure was used to support this type of chair or stool, also called a cucurule. Known to have existed in ancient Egypt, Green and Rome, this chair enjoyed a medieval revival as well as providing a popular prototype for the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century classical revivals
Source: Sotheyby’s Consice Encyclopeida of Furniture Edited by Christopher Payne
Vargueno or bargueno Spanish writing and storage desk dating from the sixteenth century, and consisting of a square or rectangular top, the flap-front of which conceals drawers. When opened, the flap-top is supported by lopers to form a writing-desk. The whole piece rests on an open or cupboard-like stand.
Veneering Furniture-making technique which consists of affixing a thin layer or strips of fine wood to the surface of a piece of furniture, this usually of a coarser wood. Valuable woods such as mahogany, rosewood, walnut and satinwood were used to cover a cheaper carcase, often at the same time concealing construction detail. First used in ancient Egypt, and then in Classical Greece and Rome, but not again until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands.
Vernis Martin A sophisticated japanning technique developed by the Martin brother s in France c.1730. This form o reproducing the effect of Oriental lacquer reached the height of its popularity in mid-eighteenth-century France.
Verre eglomise Technique widely used a turn of the eighteenth century to produce highly decorative mirrors. Gold or silver foil was applied to the mirror back and engraved with a needle before placing black or another contracting colour behind the foil. This was then enclosed with a second layer of glass or a coating of varnish.
Vitrine Glass-fronted cabinet which stood independently or on a stand and was used to display china, silver and curios; normally nineteenth century.
Vitruvian scroll Repeating patter resembling a series of ‘C’ scrolls or waves. Of classical origin, it was commonly used on eighteenth-century furniture.
Volute An ornamental form of spiral scroll adopted from Ionic capitals in Greek architecture.
Volute foot Outward-scrolling foot popular on Baroque furniture.