Text: Jennifer Boles
Across between mobile architecture and a wall ornament, brackets are one of those rare design forms with a distinctly dual nature. Conceived for the purpose of displaying objects against a wall, they are immensely practical with their shelf-like tops. And yet, the bases that support them often incorporate such decorative, high-style flourishes that they have become pieces of art in their own right. It’s no wonder brackets have been used to both showcase objects and enliven walls for centuries.
The development of wall brackets was closely related to—some historians even say the result of—the rise in popularity of Chinese porcelain during the 17th century. Among wealthy Europeans, the mania for collecting porcelain led to a fashion for exuberant displays of their collections, particularly in rooms devoted solely to Chinese porcelain, which were known as “China cabinets.”
In these spaces, porcelain vases, cups, and plates were displayed on almost every horizontal surface, including mantels and the tops of cabinets and doorframes. But in order to make the display even more impressive-looking, a design solution was needed to incorporate walls into the assemblage, hence the introduction of carved detachable wall brackets, which were intended to display small, delicate pieces of porcelain while also lending a decorative flair of their own.
Rooms rich in porcelain were especially popular among European royals, including Queen Mary II of England and Frederick I of Prussia, both of whom had porcelain rooms decorated with multitudes of wall brackets at their respective palaces, Kensington Palace and Schloss Charlottenburg.
Brackets became notable features in grand interiors during the late 17th century, when they were typically hung either in pairs or, as previously mentioned, in large groupings on walls. Early brackets tended to be compact in size in keeping with the small porcelain vases they usually supported. However, during the 18th century, brackets were sometimes made larger to hold weightier objects, such as busts or clocks. But no matter their size, brackets were an important consideration when planning a room’s décor.
Far from being decorative afterthoughts, they were usually designed in conjunction with a room’s other furnishings to achieve an overall harmonious appearance. In 18th-century France, for example, carved brackets were the domain of skillful menuisiers, the furniture designers and craftsmen who were responsible for a room’s carved pieces, including furniture and boiserie (woodwork). Furniture makers in 18th-century England also designed beautifully ornate carved brackets, including Thomas Chippendale, whose designs for “brackets for bustos” (busts) appeared in his pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, in the 1750s.
Like most other decorations, brackets were evocative of the prevailing design styles of the time. Late 17th-century Baroque brackets were dramatic looking with their symmetrical scrolls, while the succeeding Rococo style of the early 18th century lent brackets an exuberant, even whimsical, flair with shells, flowers, and chinoiserie motifs, usually arranged asymmetrically.
Other prevalent 18th- and 19th-century designs included acanthus leaves, birds, putti, and swags. Although gilt was the most desirable finish, painted or japanned finishes were not uncommon, especially for brackets intended for the less-formal rooms of a house. Additionally, once Europeans figured out the recipe for porcelain in the early 18th century, domestic porcelain makers sometimes fired wall brackets made of porcelain, although this medium was never as popular as their carved wood relations.
Although most brackets were designed to complement rather than compete with the objects they displayed, some prominent collectors notably arranged groupings of brackets with such flair that they commanded almost as much attention as the priceless objects they held. In 19th-century London, architect Sir John Soane used scores of wall brackets, including some made of plaster, to display antiquities and busts throughout his home, mostly compiled in dense assemblages.
More recently, there was the late socialite Jayne Wrightsman, who was photographed in height-of-chic fashion, seated at her French desk with a cluster of antique Meissen birds perched upon thirteen brackets behind her. If there is a lesson to be learned from both collectors, it is that even when enviable objects are on display, antique or vintage brackets are themselves sights to behold.