Bring On Baroque

Baroque is designed to impress.  It’s been on my mind, it’s that Dolce and Gabbana AW campaign. I love how fashion grabs historical references, twists the kaleidoscope and punches them into public consciousness… their Baroque is modern, fun and desirable. Ruben’s style flowers and putti gavort over silk dresses, intricate lace and of course THE tapestry dress.

You can check out the collection and Vogue review here.

Over here in interiors-land, historical styles and references never go away, but Baroque’s fashionable moment has made me look again.

So  here is A 21st Century guide to Baroque:  The style, features and of course: ‘Baroque-now‘.

For me historical styles have 2 facets: Fact and Spirit. 

Fact: is the ‘Baroque stats’          Spirit: is its innate characteristics.

Fact: Baroque is a distinct period in European design history – emerging in late Renaissance Italy (1600) to become the choice of Kings and aristocracy, most famously  in Versailles. I am going to focus more on English Baroque, here under the Restoration of the monarchy and  the arrival of Huguenot craftsmen it flourished, c. 1666-1725.

Chatsworth’s Painted Hall, half-close your eyes to ‘colour blur’ and see how it matches up to Dolce’s image above.

Spirit: Baroque is assertive on a large-scale: dramatic, ornate and complex.  The ultimate alpha-male –  he’s master of the grand gesture, on an overt mission to bowl you over.  No wonder team D and G like him.

Baroque Stats: (bored already? you could head down to ‘Baroque-Now’)

The term Baroque was originally ‘barocca’ the name for highly prized, irregular pearls incorporated into fabulous, courtly jewels.  It now defines a period which evolved out of the Renaissance’s formal, mannered style.

The Canning Jewel, a spectacular ‘Barocca’number  from the 16th C

The church basically wanted to ‘wow’ the masses, demanding powerful images  which caught you emotionally rather than intellectually.  This was translated into architectural statements,  churches, palaces,  interiors and furniture as the aristocracy realised Baroque was a powerful means of reinforcing their exulted position.

Baroque’s best known triumph is Versailles, built to consolidate and magnify regal power. The Hall of Mirrors was officially the ‘brightest’ room in Europe, huge mirrored panels reflecting the Sun King’s brilliance, proclaiming his superiority and connection to ‘God Above’ throughout Europe.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

English Baroque emerged during the Restoration. Royal and aristocratic building works included Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Ham House, Petworth, Drayton and Chatsworth.  It Culminated under Queen Anne in the extraordinary palaces of Christopher Wren’s disciples Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor: Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh Palace and Seaton Delavel Hall.

Look how the architecture changes,  the linear harmony of Hampton Court  Palace and Chatsworth becomes much more assertive, dynamic even at  Seaton Delavel Hall and Castle Howard – they’re literally  punching into the sky.

Architectural Novelties: Baroque excels at super-scaled elements to dazzle the visitor. Domed spaces, sweeping stairs, the state apartments – where the enfilade  offers an enticing view through the successive state rooms, formally aligned (with fantastically complex arrangements of access and greetings – defined by status), culminating in the bed chamber and closet.

Architecturally I am intrigued by  the idea of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’,  a room displaying natural phenomena, antiquities or tech-pieces – the pre-cursor to  ‘Collections’ and museums.

 An enfilade at Chatsworth

A stairway to Heaven at Petworth, dramatically painted ceilings are a Baroque special.

Pure Baroque: The state drawing room at Chatsworth, with incredibly detailed carving, Mortlake tapestries, and prized Eastern curiousities:  the cabinet-on-a-stand with coromandel lacquer panels and blue-and-white porcelain  from China.

The State Bed: The climax of the Baroque ‘state apartment’ was intended for receiving important visitors, not for sleeping in. This early one at Knole has carved  lions’ feet, decorative feather plumes and is upholstered in gold silk embellished with real gold and silver thread.

Below is my favourite:

From 1700,  now at the Victoria and Albert museum, attributed to Francis Lapiere. Upholstered in white Chinese silk,  red velvet and crimson silk braid, the headboard has the husband and wife’s cipher – I like to think they slept in this one? Beds were the ultimate expense, Nell Gwyn commissioned hers in silver to entertain Charles II, reportedly setting her back over £2 million in todays money.

Socially the ultimate invite was a private space at the end of the state apartment …the closet.  Below is ‘The Queen’s Closet’ created at Ham house for a royal sleep-over.

English Baroque – Interior Features

Walls and Ceilings: Ceilings in round and oblong panels often with paintings.  Elaborate fruit and floral moulding with plenty of putti.  Cornice and coving appear alongside bolection moulding.  Rooms can have tall wooden panelling and mouldings or extravagantly  painted with OTT plasterwork.  Some have beautifully worked leather panels, damask and LOTS OF tapestries around.

Large doors or double doors with 2-10 panels. Sash Window appears. Around 1700 wrought iron developed used in balustrades, stairs and gateways.

Floors: Parquet and marble with oriental rugs.

Textiles:  Fabrics include: velvet, silk, crewel work, satin, chintz (printed cottons), damask, tapestry and the geometric ‘flame’ design.  Extravagant trims and braids: Lambrequins galore (tassels).  Deep, Rich colours.

KEY Motifs: flora and fauna, lambrequin, putti,monograms and crests.

Architects and Designers: Christopher Wren, Vanburgh, Hawksmoor, Daniel Marot, engravings of his work on the interiors of Hampton Court were extremely influential – promoting a coordinated style for the first time, Grinling Gibbons carvings are particularly famous.

Baroque Furniture: we can’t do Baroque without…  the frenchman André Boullé, (1642-1732)  this ébéniste  set the standard:  his marquetry work is dazzling. Baroque case furniture uses precious materials including tortoiseshell, ivory and exotic woods  with chunky ormolu mounts.

Examples of Boullé furniture and a detail from one of his marquetry panels: intricately designed brass laid over tortoiseshell

Furniture Innovations: Different colours of wood and the walnut  oyster veneer feature.The commode  arrives, literally ‘a chest with drawers’. The armoire appears . The cabinet on a stand is the statement piece particularly in chinese lacquer panels or precious materials, the pier table with candle stands and pier mirror –  traditionally between the windows is a standard feature, chairs have elaborate carving and gradually lose their stretchers, elaborate spindles  and carving also feature.  The first sofa appears.  Also furniture was arranged around the edge of a room, brought in as required to keep the space clear. The barometer is invented and the long case clock becomes a regular item.

The pier table – arrangements in elaborate marquetry and silver with torchéres  either side below co-ordinating mirror

The prized cabinet-on-a-stand in marquetry and lacquer panels, note the spindle legs and stretchers to the left and gilt apron centrally.

A crested mirror and  elaborate gilt frame mirror flank an engraving of Daniel Marot’s mirror designs –  check out the ‘aspirational lifestyle ‘ placement of chinese vases  (somethings never change) .

A Selection of seating and textiles

After the formal grandeur and theatrical scale of Baroque architecture,  the furniture and accessories feel more ‘human’, their user-friendly scale combine with rich decorative detail and luxury finishes to inspire.  Two images that play in my mind:

The scagiola table top at Saltram  has a card game already laid out, both inviting and sur-real –  a conversation piece of singular use.

A 21st Century Baroque moment, Chatsworth has ‘re-created a Baroque buffet’: an extravagance of fruit, flowers, oriental porcelain and silver gilt plate – originally intended to remind you of the Duke’s supreme wealth and good taste – still performing this task admirably  400 years later.  It’s wonderful when historic houses are able to reduce the aspic and make the space feel more alive and therefore relevant: this ‘lifestyle’ display puts the viewer in touch with the Baroque.

Finally, Not Forgetting …Eastern Luxuries: These Make an appearance as trade overseas intensifies,  ‘Turkey-work’ rugs from the Middle East,  through to China where exquisite lacquered panels and Baroque’s beloved blue and white porcelain originate (which Europe tries so hard to copy – Chinoiserie – whilst drinking their highly prized, newly fashionable – tea).

Eastern Bounty at Chatsworth, oriental porcelain and a coromandel lacquer screen cabinet.

Baroque Inheritance: Baroque’s rich lexicon of design has been inspirational ever since: From William Kent through Regency Britain and beyond.  It’s 20th Century fanlist is a roll call of the greats: From decorators Elsie de Wolfe, Tony Duquette through to John Fowler and David Hicks, furniture  designers such as Gilbert Poillerat, Serge Roche, Oriel Harwood and Mark Brazier Jones and fashionistas like Coco Chanel, Christian Lacroix and of course Dolce and Gabbana have all plundered it’s treasure chest.

A small sample of 20th C Baroque: Coco Chanel between her Blackamoors( shot by Cecil Beaton), Tony Duquette’s Hollywood Regency interior, The World of Interiors ‘Baroque’ photoshoot  1992 , Baccarat’s Elephantine centrepiece, Serge Roche’s monumental scagiola table replete with lion’s paws and Rose Cumming’s infamous ‘ugly room’ a cabinet of curiousities curated from all the client rejects she arranged into splendid mesalliance. (images from Stephen Calloway’s Baroque Baroque)

Modern Baroque: Finally! Bring it on. Open any magazine and Baroque  moments hum.

From velvet plaited sofas to over-scaled mirrors, ornate chandaliers, sumptuous beds and dramatic paintings… each give a note of 17th century Baroque.

Once you started looking it’s everywhere: historical styles get re-appropriated through time and become part of our visual inheritance, sometimes you need to look again with a ‘Baroque’ lens to let it shine through.

To pick a few modern interpretations, there’s… Stand Out, Statement and Vignette:

‘Stand Out‘ Baroque which requires serious volume and grand-scale design.

Ilse Crawford’s work at a Regency country house has significant Baroque echoes: a vast Venini ‘Majestic Diamentei’ chandalier, Chinoiserie – this time hand painted Zuber wallpaper and ‘cocktail-cabinet-on-a-stand’ in vivid green by Aldo Tura c. 1947.

Donatella Versace’s opulent Italian dining room has a mural of Asian porcelain amplifying the collection of vessels in the room, parquet flooring, magnificent marquetry sideboard, shimmering chandalier and tassel upholstered chairs.

A funky-modern baroque: Tukey style carpet, over-scaled pedestal displays, velvet upholstery and tapestry  cushions interplay with the more modern elements at work.

The Ruling Queen of Modern Baroque is Kelly Wearstler, powerful, dynamic spaces ooze glamour that assert her privileged client’s position in the world.

‘Baroque Statements’ incorporating  a key ‘Baroque’ piece  or your very own Cabinet of Curios:

In Elle Decor a feminine dressing room gets a baroque-lift via a Gilbert Poillerat style table underneath Bagués Chandalier

Isle Crawford and clients commissioned Studio Job to make a modern marquetry   Armoire celebrating the history to the house,

Pier style bar table, looks good in Vogue Living.

Mantelpiece of curios, Barry Dixon, Elle Decor.

Steven Gambrel transformed a  powder room  into Curio Cabinet with pages from a reissue of  the 18th C  Cabinet of Natural Curiousites’ by naturalist  Albertus Seba

Baroque Vignettes‘ a playful use of Baroque motifs or pieces:

From top left: Living etc. transforms a modern office setting with stylised pieces and trellis design, fashion design Andrew GN has an apartment ‘where the past is always present‘, Madaleine Weinreib’s blue and white collection is reflected off her dressing table and a coromandel screens transform a kitchen area of designer Lazaro Rosa-Violan’s home in Barcelona.

SO…fancy a bit of Baroque? I do.

Want to get serious from Studio Job to David Gill Galleries and beyond there are some fantastic modern pieces which pack a Baroque-punch.  1st Dibs Baroque has a veritable treasure chest.   But on this occasion… I would head on down to Aynhoe Park where James Perkins  and friend are selling off an estimated £1 million pounds of a fantastically eccentric collection: from taxidermy unicorns to Mark Brazier Jones and floating jewelled side boards. Bring it on. English, Eccentric and Baroque  – what more could a Brit-girl with a Baroque fetish ask for?


Baroque Encore forcuses on 20th Century Neo-Baroque

images for Baroque interiors and furniture from ‘English country Houses’ by Jeremy Musson and English Furniture 1660-1714 by Adam Bowett.


13 thoughts on “Bring On Baroque

  1. Love all the images, the historical references, and the obvious research you’ve put into this piece. About to embark on a Baroque Eclectic design for my rebuilt home. Hoping to mix some really extravagant, luxurious pieces with more simple, modern elements. Got to bookmark this page to keep my eye on the prize. Especially loved the funky-modern baroque example you posted. Thanks!

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  8. Fabulous!
    I love Baroque in all its forms – architecture, sculpture, painting, music, clothing, drama. I’ll be teaching a course on Baroque art and architecture next year … in a day! … it will be mad!

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