Glossary of Antique Terms

Antique Speak: A Practical Glossary

By: Latique • Jun 30, 2010 • 0 Comments

From faience to guilloche, we'll expand your vocabulary with a smattering of French, English and a bit of Latin. Get to know the lingo and you'll save yourself a heap of guessing on items that come with exotic descriptions.

ACANTHUS  This ornamental leaf is found in classic Greek and Roman decoration. It was used throughout the Romanesque, Gothic and the Renaissance as a key decorative element. It is particularly prevalent in furniture designed during the Baroque and Rococo Periods.

ALABASTER  Stone with a smooth surface, similar in appearance to marble. Used in making lamps because of its translucent qualities.

AMPHORA  A Grecian style urn. In antiquity these were used to hold precious oils. 

APPLIQUE  A decorative motif formed by cutting, casting or carving pieces of one material and applying them to the surface of another. Also used by the French for the word sconce or wall light.

APRON  An extended area below the frame of a table, cabinet, chest of drawers or the bottom edge of the seat of a chair.

ARABESQUE   Any complex, line decoration based on flowing lines. Derived from a Renaissance design which was Greco-Roman in inspiration.  

ARMOIRE  A tall cupboard or wardrobe. Armoires are often carved in prized woods such as walnut with elaborate floral and figural motifs characteristic of the area where it was fabricated.

ART DECO  A style from the1920's to the 1940's consisting of simple geometric elements and clean lines.

ART NOUVEAU  A style that originated 1880's and was n vogue through the 1920's. Art Deco was was informed by nature. It characteristics are smooth curves and arabesque detailing.

BANDING  Strips of veneer used as borders in table tops, drawer fronts, armoires and other pieces of furniture. 

BANQUETTE  A long upholstered bench which was originally used against the walls of great rooms.

BARLEY TWIST  The turning of a leg or column to resemble a screw thread.  Also known as spiral twist or barley sugar twist.

BAROQUE  A symmetrical and boldly decorative rectilinear style derived from Italian architecture. This style began in Italy in the late 16th century and is characterized by heavy carving, gilding, sweeping curves, elaborate scrolls, figural motifs, twisting columns, and pediments. 

BEADING  Moulding of small repeated roundels like beads. Often called pearling.

BERGERE   French term for an upholstered or caned armchair with filled-in upholstered or caned side arms popular since the 18th Century.  Photo above courtesy of Dan Salk Antiques.

BIANCO SOPRA BIANCO  A decoration on tin-glazed earthenware in white on a slightly blues or grayish ground.

BIBLIOTHEQUE  Used by the French to refer to large bookcase furniture.

BIEDERMEIER  A German Neoclassical style popular from 1815 to1830. Rectilinear in form with smooth curves, utilizing beautiful light golden wood veneers trimmed with ebony accents with little or no ornament. Comfort and functionality took precedence in this elegant style.

BISCUIT  Unglazed fired porcelain with a characteristic delicate matte finish used for figurines and objects for the table. 

BLANC DE CHINE  Used for highly translucent Chinese porcelain of the finest quality ranging in color from ivory to chalk white, highly prized by 17th and 18th Century Nobility.

BOIS DORE  Wood that has been gilded with pure gold over a smooth gesso base that often was highly carved. Also GILT WOOD

BOMBE   Case pieces that bow out at the middle.  Particularly characteristic of both French and Italian cabinet furniture of the 18th Century.

BONE CHINA  A hybrid of porcelain clay with the addition of bone ash especially important to the English manufacture of tableware.

BONNET  The top piece of an armoire or cabinet, usually carved.

BOUILLOTTE TABLE  A small French round table encircled with a delicate bronze railing often used in the Drawing Rooms of great homes in the 18th century as a side or lamp table.

BOULLE  A length of tortoiseshell, ebony, brass or ivory inlaid within precision cut scrolling. The technique was perfected by Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) during the reign of Louis XIV.

CARCASS  The body of a piece of luxury case furniture before the addition of marquetry veneers or lacquer panels.

CASE PIECE  A piece of furniture, such as an armoire, buffet or chest of drawers, which provides storage space.

CHINOISERIE  (Shown Above) A style of ornamentation current chiefly in the 18th century in Europe, characterized by intricate patterns and an extensive use of motifs identified as Chinese.

CONSOLE  An ornamental side table finished on three sides and made to be placed against a wall.

CREAMWARE  Cream colored earthenware with a transparent lead glaze.

CREDENZA  A sideboard with doors surmounted by drawers, used for storage.

CRESTING  Carved wooden decoration surmounting a mirror, cabinet or chair.

CROSSBANDING Decorative treatment within the main veneer surface of fine furniture which later became a decorative device of its own.

CROWN MOLDING The highest molding on a door, window, or cabinet.

DAY BED A narrow bed designed to be used for seating during the day.

DELFTWARE  Dutch ceramics showing the influence of Chinese blue-and-white porcelains.

DEMILUNE Half round in plan, as in a console or commode with only 2 legs as it is supported by a wall. 

DENTIL A rectangular decoration resembling teeth because the forms are aligned in rows with spaces between. Often found below projecting cornices in Classical Architecture.

DIRECTOIRE (1789-1804)  Directoire was more simple than previous designs and featured straight lines with restrained double curves. Adorned with symbols of the Revolution like arrows, pikes, triangles, wreaths. were the motif of the day. Woods were more often painted. Favored woods were fruitwood, walnut, and oak.

DORIC The primary Greek order of architecture. Heavy columns with simple details.

DOUGH BIN  Similar in appearance to a chest raised on four legs, with a lid that either hinges upward or slides horizontally on grooves. Originally designed to store and cover bread dough as is rises.

DOVETAIL  Referring to the right-angled joinery held together by interlocking trapazoidal shaped tenons. From the 18th Century the highest quality furniture construction made use of lapped dovetail. 

DROP-LEAF TABLE  A table designed so that the leaves with fold down when not in use.

EBENISTE  Ebony was so prized in France that a cabinetmaker became known as an ebeniste. A cabinetmaker specializing in luxury case furniture incorporating marquetry or veneer of various kinds during the late 17th and 18th Centuries in France.

EBONY  A precious hardwood dark brown to black in color, sometimes streaked with yellow and brown. Comes from Africa and India or Ceylon.

EGG-AND-DART  A decorative motif of classical origin consisting of egg shapes alternating with arrowheads.

EGLOMISE  An adjective designating an 18th Century technique for engraving and gilding glass. It derives from the name of the technique’s inventor, Glomy.

ELECTROPLATE  Wares made of a base metal, generally nickel, and plated with another metal such as silver deposited by electrolysis; a process used commercially from the middle of the 19th century. Designated as E.P.

ELM  A finely textured wood with a light brownish-red color tone.

EMBOSSING  A process of stamping, hammering or molding a material so that a design protrudes beyond the surface.

EMPIRE (1804-1815)  A French style intended to clearly express the imperial majesty of Napoleonic France. Neoclassic in style it is inspired by the decorative motifs and characteristics of Greco-Roman models and characterized as “spare, noble and massive”. Mahogany, rosewood and ebony were the rule with brass or gilt mounts in the form of swags, festoons, wreaths of laurel, torches, mythological figures and the Napoleonic emblems of the bee, the crown and the letter “N”. Later, sphinxes and other Egyptian figures were used after Napoleon conquered Egypt.

ENAMEL  A vitreous substance, usually colored, fused to a metal surface under heat; a similar substance fused to ceramic material is called a glaze.

ENCOIGNURE  A corner cabinet.

ENFILADE  A long buffet which runs along a wall.

ENGRAVING  In its broadest sense, the art of cutting lines in metal, wood, or other material either for decoration or for reproduction through printing. A surface decoration on metal made by cutting fine V-shaped grooves with a sharp tool. Most commonly used in silver. 

ENTABLATURE  The upper part of a classical order above the capital, consisting of the architrave, the frieze and the cornice.

ESCUTCHEON  Ornamental bronze or ormolu plate surrounding a keyhole opening. Less commonly made of ivory, bone or inlaid veneers.

ESPAGNOLETTE  Used to designate the decorative French iron hardware of this type on furniture or window closings.

ESTAMPILLE  A stamp by which, beginning in 1744 Parisian master Cabinetmakers were obligated to certify their work until 1751. After 1751 most of the major Cabinetmakers used the stamp to designate their work. 

ETAGERE  Set of freestanding or wall shelves used to display objects beginning in the Louis XVI period.

ETCHING  The art of engraving with acid on metal; also the print taken from the metal plate so engraved. In hard-ground etching the plate, usually of copper or zinc, is given a thin coating or ground of acid-resistant resin. This is sometimes smoked so that lines scratched through the resin will be clearly visible. A needle exposes the metal without penetrating it. When the design is completed, the plate is submerged in an acid solution that attacks the exposed lines. The lines receiving the longest exposure to the acid will be the heaviest and darkest in the print. It is also possible to apply the acid locally to the plate. In printing, all varnish is removed, the plate is warmed, coated with etcher's ink, and then carefully wiped so that the ink remains in the depressions but is largely or wholly removed from the surface. It is then covered with a soft, moist paper and run through an etching press. There are many variations in the technique of etching. The techniques seem to have originated in Germany between 1510 and 1520.

ETUI  A case for one or several small articles; small ornamental ladies' bag for small items.

FAIENCE  Tin-glazed earthenware from France.

FAUTEUIL  French for an open-armed armchair with upholstered seat and back and carved frame.

FEDERAL The style period from 1790-1830. Specific to American furniture and architecture. Derived from Hepplewhite and Sheraton and, towards the end of the period, from French Empire .

FESTOON  A string or garland suspended in a loop or curve between two points. When a festoon hangs down from only one end, it is called a drop. When it hangs from both ends, it is termed a swag.  Originally used on Greek and Roman altars, the festoon was much used as a decorative feature in Roman and Renaissance art. It was often represented as carried by putti, or infant figures. Also extensively used during the Neo-classical period.  

FINIAL An ornamental terminating part, as on a post or piece of furniture. Often takes the form of a ball, flame, flower acorn, pineapple or vase. They are often made of the predominant timber that is lathed, turned, or carved. Also a decorative element used on the covers of porcelain, silver and glass containers. In architecture, a sculptured ornament, often in the shape of a leaf or flower, at the top of a gable, pinnacle, or similar structure.

FIRING Process of treating clay or other plastic ceramic materials with heat to produce a hard, durable but brittle material such as pottery. Primitive potters baked their clay in an open fire, but for firing at higher temperatures and for the use of glaze, a kiln is needed. In general, pottery is fired once to harden it into biscuit ware, then a glaze is applied and fused with the clay by a second firing. China painting, enamel work, and stained glass also require firing.

FLAMBEAU Decorative motif resembling a flaming torch.

FLAT-CHASING A technique for the surface decoration of metal, resembling engraving, but produced with a hammer and punch and not involving the removal of metal.

FLEUR-DE-LIS A stylized lily used as the symbol of French royalty. 

FLUTING Decoration formed by making parallel, semicircular or concave grooves. Used on furniture since the 16th century.

FLUX An alkaline substance, such as soda or potash, added to the batch to aid the fusion of the silica.

FRANCIS I (FRANCOIS) King of France (1515-1547). Builder of the Chateaus of Blois, Chambord and Fontainebleau. In them the Renaissance had its greatest French expression. A mingling of flamboyant Gothic and Italian Renaissance ornament. Walnut and oak were the favored woods which were rich and profusely carved or inlaid.

FRENCH POLISH Process of finishing wood with a high gloss by applying successive films of shellac and spirits.

FRENCH PROVINCIAL  A style of furniture created by craftsmen in the French provinces.

FRESCO  A painting done in wet plaster, originating in Italy and used generally in mural decoration.

FRET A band of horizontal and vertical lines intersecting one another at right angles; the most common type is known as the meander or Greek key motif. Also lozenge marquetry patterns.

FRIEZE Decorative or narrative composition in a horizontal band beneath the crown of a Building or on a piece of furniture.

GADROONING  On furniture, a relief pattern developed from reeding consisting of a series of parallel, convex lobes and ornamental beading. On silver, a band of identical rounded convex forms displayed vertically or at an angle.

GALLERY  An ornamental railing or cresting surrounding the top of a table, stand, or desk.

GARGOYLE Grotesque figure originally used in Gothic architecture to frighten away evil spirits and as a decorative spout. Best know in the Gothic examples; it was adapted for ornamentation in some Medieval and Renaissance woodwork.

GATE-LEG TABLE A table whose sections are supported by jointed gates which swing out from a central section.

GESSO A compound consisting of powdered gypsum, marble dust or chalk and rabbit-skin sizing, used on wood furniture to provide a smooth surface for gilding or delicate carving.

GILDING Ornamental coating of gold leaf over a substrata.

GIRANDOLE Elaborate candelabrum with crystal pendants from the Rococo and Neoclassical Periods. In Britain, an elaborate wall bracket with mirrored back plates. (18th century).

GLAZE A vitreous coating fixed to ceramic by firing.

GOBELIN French family of dyers established in the 15th century. Established as master makers of tapestries in 1529, Gobelin created some of the most important tapestries. Also, a maker of upholstery fabrics in the Louis XVI period, in 1826 they added the manufacturing of carpets.

GOTHIC PERIOD (1100-1500)  French style taking significant influence from the Medieval church architecture. Characterized by segmented arches (pointed), flying buttresses, open tracery and vertical grandiose emphasis.

GOTICO PERIOD (1200-1450)  The pre-Renaissance Italian periods of Medieval architecture and style. (See Gothic above.)

GREEK KEY Sometimes referred to as a Grecian Key, this is a carved Classical geometric decoration resembling a maze, and repeated in bands. It's composed of interlocking straight and right-angled lines.

GRYPHON  (griffon,  griffin) In ancient and medieval legend, a creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. The griffin originated in ancient Middle Eastern legend and is often found in Persian sculpture and the decorative arts. Although its significance is obscure, it is often thought to have been a protective symbol, representing strength and vigilance. Occurs as a decorative motif in architecture and furniture during the Italian Renaissance and beyond.

GRISAILLE A monochrome painting and drawing technique executed in tones of black, gray and white, which attempts to imitate marble relief ornament on trompe l’oeil panels. Such works were often produced in the Renaissance to simulate sculpture, as in Uccello's equestrian portrait of Sir John Hawkswood (Cathedral of Florence). In the 17th century grisaille was prized for interior decoration.

GROS POINT French coarse stitch embroidery used for upholstering chairs.

GROTESQUE An ornamental composition of classical derivation combining rinceaux, fantastic animals, and distorted human figures; named after similar wall paintings in the grottos of Nero’s Golden House in Rome. A style of painting, sculpture, and ornamentation in which natural forms and monstrous figures are intertwined in bizarre or fanciful combinations.

GUERIDON Round table raised on a single centered support.

GUILLOCHE Classical decorative motif forming a continuous intersecting scrolling pattern often accompanied with rosette details.

HIGHBOY  Also called Tallboy in England, it is a two-part case piece. The upper consists of three or four layers of drawers, the lower of one or two layers of drawers. The whole piece is raised on legs.

JARDINIERE  A receptacle such as a box, jar, or decorative stand intended to hold plants or flowers.

LOWBOY  A small dressing table, often with a single frieze drawer flanked by a deeper drawer.

MAJOLICA  Enameled stoneware or tin glazed pottery with a high relief decoration originating in the Italian Renaissance, also made in France and England.

MARQUISE CHAIR  An extra wide French fauteuil or armchair.

MONASTERY TABLE  A style of table originating in French or Italian monasteries, usually constructed of oak or fir, long and narrow, often with a stretcher for support.

PALMETTE  A fan-shaped decorative Neoclassical motif resembling a stylized palm frond often used along with the anthemion detail.

PRESS CUPBOARD  Sometimes, incorrectly, known by the generic term buffet , this piece is a wholly enclosed cupboard, composed of two parts, the lower of which is entirely enclosed, with doors, and the upper of which is recessed, with either a flat or canted front.

RECAMIER  Term for a daybed or sofa with one high end and one open low end. It takes its name from the 19th century French beauty Juliette Recamier, who often posed on such a sofa for portraits.

SHAGREEN  The pebbled grey-green skin of sharks and rays. Used since the 17th century for covering small boxes and accessories.

SHELLAC  A solution of lac in alcohol or acetone. In commerce the name is applied to the resinous substance (lac) itself rather than to the solution. It ranges in color from orange to light yellow Applied to surfaces such as wood and plaster, the solution forms a hard coating upon evaporation of the solvent. Lac is the basis of French Polish.

SIDEBOARD  A long case piece used in a dining area to serve off the top of and store china. It often has drawers in the center and flanking doors.

SOUPIERE  A vase form or urn-shape often used in the Louis XVI and Empire style as the central motif in pediments atop top beds, chairs and cabinets and at the intersection of stretchers.

STILE  The upright supporting post on a piece of furniture.

STRETCHER  The cross pieces of wood connecting the legs of chairs, often forming X, H or Y shapes.

TABOURET  The French name for upholstered footstools or benches.

TERRA COTTA  Italian for "baked earth", the reddish brown, hard baked clay is used to make building materials (such as bricks) and pottery, which may then be glazed.

TOLE  A lacquered or enameled metal-ware made with tin or white metal, usually elaborately painted and sometimes gilded, most often referring to tin ware which has been decorated by means of japanning or painting.

TRESTLE TABLE  Originally, all tables were loose boards placed across trestles or horses. The trestle form survived and is distinguished from the four-legged or pedestal table.

WINDSOR CHAIR  A country chair, introduced in the late 18th century, and although largely made in Slough near Windsor, these chairs can be found in some quite distinct regional variations. Its principal distinguishing feature is that it's essentially a stool with a back on it.