The most familiar bunch of furniture that decorative arts people would know as “Chippendale” actually falls under the Rococo style. Chippendale, as well as his contemporaries Mathias Locke, Thomas Johnson and others, appropriated the frilly, organic forms that had been developed in France under the royal reigns that gave us those little upscale hunting camps like Versailles.
In the hinterlands of the North American colonies this style arrived with European trained carvers and in pattern books by the above mentioned authors and others. As far as regions go, Boston was on the slide economically, New York was very conservative, style-wise, but Philadelphia was where the action (money) was in the 1750’s when the style was being taken up by the upper class. Accordingly, that’s where the best American Rococo was created.
So how does one understand this stuff? By understand, I mean not be terrified to try and imitate some of it. My experience with it has been to agree to do it and then try to figure it out, pretty much like the other artistic skills I’ve acquired. So the most I can say is that my analysis is based only on experience from doing it and attending talks where people who knew what they were talking about explained it.
As seen in America, it looks like this. It is a modular arrangement of parts that are assembled to create a whole.
The basic modules are “C” and “S” shapes that are assembled into a pleasing, well balanced arrangement with a good amount of negative space among the elements. In this carving from a mantle in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the arrangement tapers in a long triangular form from the center to the left hand end. These S and C shaped modules usually oppose each other in the direction they face as well as how they are modeled. For instance, if one scroll terminates in a rounded or convex form, its neighbor will probably be a convex shape. Two C scrolls will usually be mated to create a new S shape.
Another modular element used in Rococo design is a string of leaves and/or flowers. In this design the string passes behind the scrolls from the upper right to the lower left, starting with a flower bud at the beginning and ending with a flower in bloom, a common theme.
In my copy of a Philadelphia mirror, the c-scroll framework is obvious, and the infill of foliage can be seen draped down the right hand side. Note the cross-hatched leaves that also oppose each other: one is convex and its mate is concave. Unlike the PMA example, these c-scrolls are not adorned with acanthus leaves, but left as bold visual elements on their own.
The last element that I’ll discuss seen thrown around in Rococo designs quite often is the ruffle or raffle. This is the leafy fin-like projection on the outside of scrolls, seen here framing the two small top-most scrolls in the image and also in little fragments on the two scrolls below them. Ruffles also wrap around the scroll in the corner of the mirror and then down the outside of the straight frame itself. The ruffles serve to fill in space and create a more interesting negative space, and sometimes to physically connect one element to another for the sake of strength, as seen where the corner ruffle and a leaf reach up and connect with the C scroll outside it. The scrollwork frame is obvious in this image, easily seen as the bones of the frame with the foliage and ruffles tying it all together.
In carving this type of work, remember that the important framework of scrolls needs to be laid out without flat spots or bumpy curves. The viewer will see those errors immediately, so time needs to be spent on them, even if you have to make a separate template for them. Ironically, I found the things that I thought would be difficult (flowers and leaves) were easy and the things that looked easy, like the long scroll flanking the sides of the frame, were the hardest. The infill of raffles needs to be exacting in the veining that’s done on them- no grooves crashing into each other. The flowers and leaves, however, can be a lot less finished looking. As long as you have a good neat framework to hang them on, no one will notice.