As I make the shift from primarily making pieces for people to mentoring woodworkers I find myself examining subjects from a whole new perspective. I’d like to take some time to talk to you today about a subject that is near and dear to me heart.
When I drafted this post I knew what I wanted to say but a bad case of “scope creep” took over and I never got where I was going. With all that said, I took my own advice and decided to “keep it simple…”
The topic of today’s post is cabriole legs. Something of which I’ve made (at least) hundreds and haven’t really thought much about in years. With an upcoming carving class, I’ve started looking at them again from the perspective of someone who hasn’t made many (if any) of them. The first questions that come to mind are: how do they work; how are they made; and what shape do you make them?
The first two questions are fairly simple to answer (in case you’re wondering the answer is: check out my new DVD from Popular Woodworking Magazine) but the last got me thinking about the design of a cabriole leg from the perspective of someone who hasn’t spent decades studying their various shapes. Should you give your legs more (or less) curve? Should the knees and calves of the legs be thicker or thinner. What about proportioning of the feet? If you want to make cabriole legs that have balance and tension you need to take some lessons from an old friend of mine: William Hogarth.
Mr. Hogarth lived in England during the first two thirds of the 18th Century (so, it’s probably fairly obvious I didn’t know him personally) and was a painter and print maker. In 1753 he published a book The Analysis of Beauty. In his book he laid out six underlying principles by which all “good” art can be judged. While those principles are essential to the book, the primary concept that concerns furniture makers is that all good art contains, at its core, the “line of beauty”.
What is the “line of beauty” you ask? Well, according to my friend, it is an “S” curve within a work of art that gives the work motion and liveliness. It is this curve that is essentially cabriole legs.
If we think about furniture prior to the introduction of the cabriole leg we see nothing more than variations on a straight legged theme. With the introduction of the cabriole leg, furniture takes on a sense of movement. But what makes a cabriole leg good?
If you take a good look at the print from Mr. Hogarth’s book entitled “Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1” we can see in panels 49 and 50 a variety of shapes obtainable for legs. In panel 49 you can see a series of “S” curves drawn. The purpose of the panel is to give the viewer enough variety for a reasonable comparison. When you look at the panel, to which curves are your eyes drawn?
Looking at panel 50, we see the “S” curves take on new dimension in the shape of furniture legs. Again, the idea is to give the viewer enough variety in order to make a reasonable comparison. When you look at the legs can you see how the various degrees to which the legs are curved give each leg a different sense of tension and movement? Again, to which legs are your eyes drawn when you consider those that are the most pleasing?
Hogarth’s underlying principle in his analysis is that straight lines evoke a sense of the inanimate. In other words, the object is lifeless thereby rigid and boring. You have to remember that Willy (as I like to call him) lived and flourished as life moved to the Rococo. All things cultural moved to the natural, living world in which people lived.
Realistically, if we look at examples of period cabriole legs, we can find examples closely resembling the curves in all of Mr. Hogarth’s illustrations. In American furniture, different parts of the country had affinities for different shaped legs. The reality is, most of the examples that people generally consider desirable fall into the middle group of his illustration (legs 3 & 4). When we design cabriole legs, we want enough tension or springiness to give the legs a sense of movement without creating a sense of artificial movement. So the adage “everything in moderation” applies to cabriole legs as well as to life.
The further I delve into my past, the more I’ll likely revisit this subject in future posts. The next time I visit this subject, we’ll talk more in-depth about regional variations in cabriole legs themselves.