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The First Empire

The Battle of the Pyramids, fought in 1798, bore fruit in architectural design and furniture decoration. It was after Napoleon returned from Egypt that Egyptian ornament, with an admixture of Greek and Roman, was used. Mahogany was the wood employed by cabinet - makers at that time, and they carved it in the form of classic figures. They cut the sphinx and the lion, and in some instances painted and inlaid them. Thus it was that a change was brought about in chairs, beds, and couches, all of which had to conform to the new fashion. It is said that ladies' work-tables were then frequently replicas of sacrificial altars taken from Greek models. The full force of the new influence was felt in the year 1804, when the Empire was proclaimed. The style then formulated lasted about twenty years, during which period its chief exponents were Percier and Fontane. Their designs were incorporated in a book entitled "Empire Furniture," which was published in 1809. Describing the Empire style Molinier writes : " Only one thing allows us to pardon the furniture of the first Empire for its incoherence of form and decoration, and that is the excessive conscientiousness that presides over its execution ; from a technical point of view the cabinet work and the bronze work are irreproachable. But at this point we should stop the eulogies that have been given too long to what may be called a caricature of the French style in the second half of the eighteenth century." In describing the chief characteristic of the style it has been said to be cubic and rectangular, with an enormous scroll in evidence. The carved figure of a swan is often the chief charm of the arm of chair and couch and sides of beds.



George Smith, who held the appointment of "Upholsterer Extraordinary " to the Prince of Wales, published a book of designs mostly copied from French pattern books in 1808, and his recommendation of the Empire style probably did much to popularise it in England. Napoleon patronised cabinet-makers like the kings of France had done before him, when in 1810 he ordered new State furniture to be made for the chambre a coucher and other rooms in the palace which were being redecorated for his bride. It was during the first Empire period that cheval glasses,` or psyches, as they were called in France, were introduced.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



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