The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Escutcheons

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Detail showing the engraved brass escutcheons on a George I scarlet japanned mule chest 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We are continuing our alphabetic tour of the decorative arts with an often overlooked element on almost every piece of Georgian case furniture: the escutcheon.  Simply put, the escutcheon is a metal plate that fits around a keyhole.  The term escutcheon comes from an old French word derived from the Latin word scutum, meaning a shield.

While many escutcheons are very simple pieces made of brass, there are others that are elaborate and works of art in their own right.

We have highlighted the work of John Channon in a previous post here, and one of the most fascinating elements of his work is the use of incredible inlaid brass work, including the escutcheon on this cabinet on chest.

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Detail of an inlaid brass escutcheon engraved with a panther mask on a cabinet attributed to John Channon 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The escutcheon is in the form of a panther surrounded by an elaborate series of acanthus leaves all on an intricate tiled background.  The concealed lock plate is revealed by pressing a lever in one of the panther’s eyes, which releases the spring and allows the key to unlock the fall front writing surface.

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Detail of the engraved lock plate on a George I giltwood secretaire cabinet showing Continental influences 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Another incredibly detailed escutcheon can be found on our George I giltwood secretaire cabinet.  The engraved lock-plate depicts a winged figure perched on a swirl of scrolling Roman acanthus and laurel foliage. A similarly designed lock-plate also appears on the pair to this bureau with slight differences in the figure—namely with the latter featuring a trumpet-blowing figure, also with wings.  The inspiration for this abstracted foliage derives from Continental sources from the middle to the end of the seventeenth century.  Jean Le Pautre, a French designer who published a series of ornamental engravings, is a likely source for the lock-plate’s design.  Like his contemporaries Daniel Marot and François de Cuvillies, Le Pautre travelled widely in Europe where his designs would serve to influence local craftsmen.  Back in England, seeing the increasing demand for these Baroque designs from the Continent, a printseller named Thomas Bowles compiled a series of these sources in 1729 into a suite of prints entitled A Compleat Book of Ornaments,… Invented and Drawn by some of the best Artists.

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A Queen Anne burr yew chest of drawers retaining its original engraved escutcheons  
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

This early Queen Anne burr yew chest of drawers of superb depth of colour retains its original engraved handles and escutcheons, which enhance the overall appeal of the piece.

Occasionally cabinetmakers would look beyond England for inspiration for their metalwork.

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A George I scarlet japanned mule chest with escutcheons in the Chinoiserie taste 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

One such example is this exceptional George I scarlet japanned mule chest.  The piece retains its original elaborate escutcheons and brass handles, which are engraved in a manner that evokes the taste and motifs from the Far East.  To learn more about this blanket chest, see our earlier post here.

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One thought on “The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Escutcheons

  1. Pingback: The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Fretwork | The Source

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