The Kings of Bling

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Stand out from the crowd with a little bling, says Katherine Sorrell

The French kings of the 17th and 18th centuries had enormous influence on aristocratic interiors. For elegance, luxury and splendour, look no further than the styles of Louis XIV, XV and XVI.

The year: 1681. The place: the royal court in France. And, according to King Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, who had assumed power two years earlier: ‘There is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.’

The king was inspired to adapt a small hunting lodge just outside Paris, extend it, and fill it with jaw-droppingly splendid decoration and furnishings, all in order to glorify his monarchy. Its style was, of course, the most up-to-date possible, a new fashion known as Baroque – dramatically dazzling and opulent, epitomised by jewel-like colours, large furniture in bulbous shapes, trompe l’oeil paintwork and glittering silver, gold and crystal to surprise and impress. The new palace was called Versailles.

The interior of Versailles, designed by Charles Lebrun, was filled with furniture made in specialist workshops by the finest native and foreign artisans. Proportioned for enormous rooms, pieces were carved and gilded in heavy, scrolling shapes, upholstered with velvet and brocade, and inlaid with exotic materials such as marble, silver, ivory, lapis lazuli and agate.

There were fabrics woven with silver or gold thread, lavish rugs and walls hung with tapestries or covered in marble or mirror. Perhaps most extreme of all was the specially commissioned furniture and lighting made of silver. Every tiny detail of this grand, formal and ornate design had been considered. It was utterly magnificent, and immediately became the envy of every other court in Europe.

Fashions are forever changing, however, and, inevitably, there was a reaction against the monumental style of Baroque. By the turn of the 18th century Louis XIV was urging a ‘graceful and airy’ style on his granddaughter-in-law. After his death in 1715, the court moved to Paris, where a less ceremonial lifestyle developed, with smaller rooms and lighter furniture. Known as Rococo (because shells and rocks – rocailles – featured so frequently), it was frivolous and exuberant, all delicate curves and asymmetrical lines while, overall, homes were arranged so as to be comfortable rather than impressive, colours soft and feminine, and patterns delicate. The typical Rococo home featured elaborate plasterwork and carved, painted and gilded wooden panels, walls hung with silk or hand-painted wallpapers imported from China, all reflected in ornamental mirrors. Furniture often had a curving front and – most typically of all – cabriole legs.

Also known as Louis Quinze style, Rococo was at its height in France in the 1740s. Within a decade or so, however, a move towards simplicity, combined with a revival of classical forms (the latter due to recent archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum), gave rise to another new look. In England, it was known as neo-classical; in France, Louis Seize. By the time Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 this style was dominant, and he and his wife Marie Antoinette were keen patrons.

While luxury and elegance were still key – this was, after all, the style of royalty and aristocrats – somewhat plainer, even geometric designs replaced elaborate decorations, while straight lines and symmetry took over from curves and arabesques. Key pieces included chairs with horseshoe-shaped backs and tapering, column-shaped legs, striped fabrics and wallpapers, and elaborate window treatments featuring swags and tails. Furniture was grouped sociably rather than placed around the edges of the room, and even featured comfortable, sprung-cushioned upholstery. Although they were still often gilded or lacquered, pieces were less visibly adorned, partly because the most fashionable makers had started to use mahogany, a new (and expensive) import.

Louis Seize style could be summed up by two words: expensive simplicity – in many ways rather like Marie Antoinette’s affectation of peasant dress. And, like the royal couple, it was not to last. In 1793 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined. Two years later, the French revolutionary government was established, the Directory, lending its name to the final phase of neo-classicism: Directoire style, sparse, simple and notable for its lack of ornamentation. It was the end of the Louis era, but these remarkable styles have influenced and inspired us ever since.

Versailles curved luxury upholstered bed, from £1,695, The French Bedroom Company, 0845 644 8022; www.frenchbedroomcompany.co.uk.

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