Style Glossary: Queen Anne

Style Glossary: Queen Anne

Anna Hoffman
Oct 28, 2010

The Queen Anne style may not be the most 'fashionable' historical style at the moment, but it is a charming window onto Colonial American style. A sober, restrained style compared to the concurrent Louis XIV style, and less ornate than the subsequent Georgian style, Queen Anne is quietly elegant and delicate, a spare interpretation of an early Rococo aesthetic. Read on to learn the history and hallmarks of the style.

The style we are looking at today emerged in the early years of the 18th century, but was not named for Queen Anne until the late-19th century, during the revival of the style. Queen Anne was the last of the Stuart monarchs (her 18 known pregnancies each resulted in miscarriage, stillbirth or childhood death, so she died with no direct descendants), and served as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702-1714. She died just before the style eventually named after her took hold.

Interestingly, in England, the same furniture style is typically known as Georgian (after Anne's successors, George I, II and III). American historians certainly recognize a Georgian style, but only from later in the century, more masculine and Neoclassical. It's unclear why there is a naming discrepancy. Norman Vandal suggests that perhaps the Queen Anne style was so delicately elegant that it lent itself to a woman's name? Or that maybe the unpopularity of King George III in the colonies (remember that whole Revolution thing?) made Americans come up with an alternative royal moniker?

By any name, the style began appearing in England around 1705. In the American colonies, though, always slightly behind the European style trends, the Queen Anne style emerged around 1715-20, and remained popular through the middle of the 18th century, and in some places even into the latter decades. It is the Colonial American Queen Anne style that we will explore here.

The Queen Anne style is most apparent in chairs, though it is also easily discernible in case furniture like highboys and lowboys, and novel furniture forms like card tables and drop-leaf tables. Typical characteristics to look for include:

  • Medium-dark woods — often walnut or cherry — as opposed to oak, which had been popular in earlier eras, and which was still common in English chairs (furniture was also occasionally painted);
  • Shapely cabriole legs, with outward-curving "knees" and inward-curving "ankles," often resembling an animal leg;
  • Delicate, even spindly legs — Queen Anne-style case furniture and wingback chairs often look top-heavy;
  • Simple pad feet or occasionally paw feet (and ball-and-claw feet in later examples);
  • Shapely, solid back splat on chairs, usually vase-shaped, revealing curvaceous negative spaces on either side (and pierced back splats in later examples);
  • Carved shells on the aprons of chairs or cabinets;
  • Scrolled pediments and scalloped aprons on case furniture.

While the delicate forms and S-curves clearly developed out of the Baroque furniture aesthetic and were related to the emerging Rococo aesthetic, an important new inspiration was Asian furniture. Queen Anne chairs got their curved backs, yoke-shaped top rail and center splats from antique Chinese chairs. A major trend in Queen Anne furniture was "japanning," or painting wood furniture to resemble lacquered exports from Japan (image 7).

In 1754, a London cabinetmaker named Thomas Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, a book that printed designs of the popular styles in England, with detailed studies of common decorative motifs like pierced back splats in "Chinese" and "Gothic" styles and ball-and-claw feet (images 8 & 9). The book proved to be a wildly effective way of disseminating taste and style, and Chippendale's name became associated with the more sophisticated, Neoclassical evolution of Queen Anne style that was produced and sold all along the Eastern seaboard through the rest of the 18th century.

Sources: One of the best sources on the style is Norman Vandal's book, Queen Anne Furniture: History, Design & Construction. I also referred to an article by William R. Johnston entitled, "Anatomy of the Chair: American Regional Variations in Eighteenth Century Styles," published in the November, 1962 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin.

Images: 1, 6-8 The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2 & 5 The Brooklyn Museum; 3 A Jeffrey Bilhuber interior; 4 & 9 Winterthur; 10 "Queen Anne" chair, $319 at Ethan Allen. The labels on images 1, 6 and 8 are my own.

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