The Rococo style – an introduction

Rococo was perhaps the most rebellious of design styles. Often described as the final expression of the Baroque movement, it was exceptionally ornamental and theatrical – a style without rules. Compared to the order, refinement and seriousness of the Classical style, Rococo was seen as superficial, degenerate and illogical.

The Rococo first emerged in France during the 1720s and 30s as a style developed by craftspeople and designers rather than architects, which explains why it is found primarily in furniture, silver and ceramics.

Rococo takes its name from the French word 'rocaille', which means rock or broken shell – natural motifs that often formed part of the designs, along with fish and other marine decorations. The acanthus leaf (Acanthus mollis), or rather a heavily stylised version of it, was also a signature motif. Another key feature of the design is its curved asymmetric ornamentation, where its forms often resemble the letters 'S' and 'C', and where one half of the design does not match the other.

Left to right: Writing cabinet, probably Michael Kimmel, 1750 – 55, Dresden, Germany. Museum no. W.63-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Vase, Chelsea porcelain factory, about 1758 – 68. Museum no. 828-1882. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rococo flourished in English design between 1740 and 1770. It first appeared in England in silver and engravings of ornament in the 1730s, with immigrant artists and craftspeople, including Huguenot refugees from France, such as Paul de Lamerie, playing a key role in its dissemination.

Left to right: Basket, Paul de Lamerie, 1742 – 43, London, England, silver. Museum no. M.6-2001. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Chamber candlestick, Paul Crespin, 1744 – 45, London, silver. Museum no. M.2-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Also important was the St Martin's Lane Academy – known today as the Royal Academy of Arts – which was organised in 1735 by the painter William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) from a circle of artists and designers who gathered at Slaughter's Coffee House at the upper end of St Martin's Lane, London. This artistic set, which included amongst others the book illustrator Hubert-Francois Gravelot (1699 – 1773) and painter Andien de Clerment (died 1783), and the drawing classes they held at the academy, were highly influential in introducing and promoting the Rococo style in England.

Design for a rococo interior, by John Linnell, about 1755, England. Museum no. E.263-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many felt the nation lacked the design and necessary skills to compete with imported French goods, which led to initiatives to improve design standards during the years when the Rococo was current in Britain. From 1742, the furniture designers and cabinet makers Matthias Lock and Henry Copland published a series of prints which introduced a distinctively British form of Rococo scrollwork. This style was widely adopted for woodcarving and other decorative work and subsequently dominated British Rococo design until the mid-1760s. For the first time in Britain most of the prints were of original designs rather than copies of continental production. However, British designers continued to imitate contemporary French work for silver, porcelain and furniture that were being made at the top end of the market.

Left to right: Prints from 'A New Book Of Ornaments With Twelve Leaves’, Matthias Lock and Henry Copland, 1752, London, England. Museum nos. E.2809-1886 and E.2810-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many pattern books of Rococo ornament of the type issued by Lock and Copland were published in England in the 1740s and 1750s. Their popularity stemmed from the complex and irregular three-dimensional forms of the Rococo style and its emphasis on variety and invention, which placed great demands on the design and modelling skills of British craftspeople. These designs were largely intended for craftspeople and designers and were hugely influential in disseminating the Rococo style. Rather than copying the entire design, woodcarvers would mine them for inspiration, cutting them up and adding their own ideas.

The most influential single set of pattern prints was put out as a book of furniture designs. The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director by Thomas Chippendale the Elder, was published first in parts and then as a collected edition in 1754. This book broke new ground in both being a source of design ideas and pattern book for potential customers. The patterns had the greatest effect among the smaller furniture makers, mostly outside London.

Explore a selection of pattern prints from The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Directors in our slideshow below:

Header image:

A design for a nautical-themed frame, plate no.187 in The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, Thomas Chippendale, 1762 edition, London. Museum no. 2594. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London