The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Acanthus

Acanthus.jpg

A Marble Pilaster with Acanthus Scrolls, Roman circa 1st century CE 
Metropolitan Museum of New York

When writing descriptions of antique furniture, we often describe in detail the decoration and ornamentation on the piece.  One of the features that appears again and again is the acanthus leaf.  But what actually is an acanthus, and why is it so popular?

The acanthus ornament is a stylised version of a Mediterranean plant with jagged leaves known as Acanthus spinosus.  The Greeks were the first to introduce the acanthus into artistic decoration, particularly with the capital of Corinthian columns, which is a cluster of acanthus leaves grouped together.  The Romans continued to use acanthus leaves in decoration, and many cultures followed suite in using this classic decorative motif, including Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic traditions.

With the neo-classical revival in England in the eighteenth century, the acanthus leaf became a prominent feature in art once again.  Cabinet makers in particular used the acanthus leaf on carved furniture, as it provides an attractive balance between order and nature: the symmetry of the leaf is balanced by its curling and organic individual ends.  Everyone from Thomas Chippendale to Robert Adam incorporated the acanthus leaf into their furniture designs, often featuring the acanthus leaf on the knees of chairs, friezes of tables, and stems of legs.  Below we have featured photographs showing details of pieces in our collection showcasing the acanthus leaf.  To learn more about the pieces, click on the image to see the full piece and its description.

AD.39

Carved giltwood stylised acanthus interspersed with C-scrolls 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

L05.30

Canted corner carved with acanthus leaf around carved scroll 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

M01.04b copy

Boldly carved giltwood acanthus back supports 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

K10.100Bb

Carved giltwood acanthus leaves flanking a central mask 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

E10-98

Carved giltwood acanthus emerging from C-scrolls 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

L06.36a

Carved stylised acanthus on the knee of a leg 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

G10-108 copy

Carved giltwood acanthus leaves on the base of a tripartite stand 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

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