From the elaborate brass sheeting and stud work on an Arab chest to the simple recessed handles on a campaign chest of drawers, brass decoration on antiques take numerous forms. Handles, escutcheons, hinges, back plates and lock plates show the skill of the craftsman, cultural influences and obviously add to the character and uniqueness of the piece.
The types of brass fittings seen on antiques have gone through an evolution of design and style due not only to changing fashions but advancements in the methods of production. Therefore, we see a progression from basic designs, from the 17th century to more elaborate adornments thereafter.
Arguably the most obvious type of brass decoration on antiques are brass handles. The first style of which were the drop handles that appeared on oak and walnut furniture from 1660-1710 period. Then from the early 18th century the loop handle was introduced. This was accompanied by a flat back plate,which to begin with was plain but became more elaborate and decorative. An example would be the lion head handle with the loop placed inside the mouth of the animal.
Around the turn of the 18th century the cast bail handle appeared. A handle or drawer pull which hangs down in a reversed arch or half-moon. It attached to a drawer front with cotter pins clinched on the inside, similar to the earlier drop pulls. The ends of these early bails curved inward to complete the handle. Examples of this style would be swan neck handles and bail handles with rosettes.
Many more variations of these types of handles came into fashion and others evolved from necessity. Take for example the recessed brass handles often found on Campaign furniture. Campaign furniture was a special type of colonial furniture. Also known as knock down furniture it was specifically designed to be broken down or dismantled easily to be taken on expeditions. Such handles sit flush with the brass plate and can be pulled out easily for use.
A practical type of brass fitting are side handles. These are mainly seen on chests and were used to carry the piece when transported from place to place. These side handles had to be extremely strong and sturdy as the chests themselves were heavy.
The style of side handles on Colonial chests depends on whether the piece was influenced by the Chinese or the Europeans, for example, the early Shiraz chests have turned in lugs (handle ends) as was the custom of the Chinese and adopted by the Dutch and the Portuguese.
Later chests (Shiraz, Bombay and Surat) had C-shaped handles with extruding lugs and a back plate with a pattern adapted from a Chinese motif of a phoenix with spread wings.
Around 1780 the stamped brass back plate in oval or circular form associated with Hepplewhite or Sheraton furniture came into use. This would be made from thin sheet brass, stamped to shape and therefore hollow at the back.
A special type of brass decoration on antiques is brass inlay. During the early 19th century it was very much the height of opulence to inlay delicately pieces of brass design into wood, especially for box decoration. This art form was only attained by the most skilled and patient craftsman. Not only would the brass itself have to be carefully hand fretted and filed into ornate and fluid designs, it would then have to be precisely inlaid into the wood without fault. The richer coloured woods like Mahogany and Rosewood were often favoured for use with brass inlay work as these combinations really emphasized and contrasted each other with great effect.
On most antique furniture the hinges will be discreet and often hidden. However, on some pieces such as this Portuguese colonial mahogany cupboard, the large butterfly hinges are part of the overall design and are a prominent decorative feature.
Stud Work is a distinctive type of brass decoration on antiques. Mainly seen on Arab Chests, the studs themselves are dome headed with square shafts. The holes would have had to be made in the wood in advance as brass is relatively soft and would not penetrate the hardwood otherwise.
Brass sheeting is also seen often on Arab chests. Here the decorative brass sheeting is punched and pierced and stuck down firmly with pitch and then secured with small flat-headed brass nails.
There are many forms of brass decoration on antiques, and it adds to the exclusivity of these special types of furniture. It is the attention to detail and the quality of the craftsmanship that makes antiques really special.
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