Outrageous and witty, the Rococo movement’s flame burned brightly in the middle decades of the 18th Century. Chris Yeo looks at one of history’s most exuberant styles and poses the question: are you a Roundhead or a Cavalier?

The British, as we are always told, are a reserved people. Along with fish and chips, our stiff upper lip is what we’re most famous for. I must admit that whenever I hear this, I have to remind myself that, within this sweeping statement, they’re talking about me. I don’t know about you but I’ve never considered myself the shy and retiring type, if anything, I’m a bit of a Cavalier. A what, I hear you ask. Let me explain. According to a particular school of thought, we Brits divide into two camps – Roundhead and Cavalier. Students of history will know that these were the opposing sides in the English Civil War – the Parliamentarians aka Roundheads were known for their spartan tastes – banning Christmas carols and anything that looked even remotely pleasurable while, on the other side, the Cavaliers revelled in all that life had to offer and showed it with their big hair, Saville Row tailored uniforms and their all-round flamboyance and love of the good things in life. We have a saying that if someone has a ‘cavalier attitude’ it means they don’t care (like that’s always a bad thing). If ever someone accuses you of that just tell them to stop being such a Roundhead.

Anyway, so the theory goes, these opposing traits have become key aspects of the British character, battling for supremacy in every walk of life like it’s 1642 all over again. As a design historian, one of the things I love is being able to make connections between man-made objects and the wider world. I think, down the centuries, this Roundhead versus Cavalier tension has played out in the way we decorate our homes.  Roundheads are all about straight lines and classical order, while Cavaliers are more laissez-faire and letting things go curly. Normally it works pendulum style – think of the florid excesses of High Victorianism being stamped out by William Morris and his smock-wearing acolytes, or those ‘Form Follows Function’ Modernists showing Art Deco exactly what it could do with its decorative flourishes - but occasionally those two forces fight it out at the same time. With this in mind, this week we’re taking a look at the curious affair that was English Rococo.

Rococo, it’s a word you’ll have heard before but what exactly was it?  Quite simply, the most self-consciously decorative – cavalier - of all decorative styles. Developed in Louis XIV’s (it was known as “the French taste” in this country) it was the dominant style in northern and central Europe during the first half of the 18th century, affecting all the arts from furniture to fashion and sculpture to ceramics. The word rococo actually began life as a term of ridicule in the 1790s, when the style was already dead and buried. It sounds Italian but actually derives from the French rocaille (pronounced 'rock-eye'), describing the shells and rocks which were used as decoration in shell-rooms and garden grottoes.

There’s nothing straight about Rococo, it’s all about the curve. Flowing lines became obligatory. Think twirly-whirly, think wedding cake decoration, sinuous C and S-scrolls, garlands, ribbons, shells and sea monsters. Familiar objects lose their well-known outlines and, to quote the Bard, suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange. In Rococo’s surreal world everything swirls, moves and writhes. Designers plundered the natural world for inspiration; crabs, eels, and crustaceans happily rub along with seaweed, mermaids and river gods.  Rococo’s essential motif was the cartouche – an amorphous, unformed shape that was somewhere between a jellyfish and the human ear, which could be moulded into any shape. From this basic motif the great French ornemanistes – like Nicolas Pineau, who could take a console table and turn it into an all singing, all dancing gilded extravaganza – produced their extraordinary designs.

Across the channel, the British were grinding their teeth. Paris was the undisputed centre of European fashion and the French luxury trades set trends for all the other European nations. Despite being almost constantly at war with France throughout the 18th century, those thrifty Anglo-Saxon Protestants still craved the exquisite sophistications of the enemy. Rococo arrived in England just at the point when things were getting more square and architectural. Since the 1720s when Lord Burlington had led a campaign to revive the classical splendours of Palladio and Inigo Jones, the Palladian movement had been the dominant force in design. The watchwords were symmetry and balance and, as styles go, it was sober and serious – Roundheaded, even. For some, Rococo’s arrival was looked upon rather like the arrival of a flu pandemic. Frothing with indignation, one commentator had this to say:

They heap cornices, columns, cascades, rushes and rocks in a confused manner, one upon another; and in some corner of this confused chaos, they will place a cupid in great fright, and crown the whole with a festoon of flowers.

The Rococo first inveigled its way into England via the fashionable dining rooms of the aristocracy. Gastronomic success rested not only on the best ingredients, but also on the service, the convivial atmosphere, and the visual interest of the table and eating room. By the 1740s, the best dining tables were groaning with a prince's ransom of rococo silverware: a still-life centre piece or a branching epergne holding flowers and fruit surrounded by a flotilla of tureens, condiment sets and candelabra. The greatest Rococo silversmiths were Paul de Lamerie and Nicholas Crespin (who once found the perfect Rococo shape in a turtle’s shell and so mounted it in silver and turned it into a punch bowl) both of whom specialised in elaborate tableware that were swirling rocaille masterpieces, which must have ruined the taste of the soup for more Palladian-minded diners.

The outstanding English interpreter of Rococo was Matthew (or Matthias) Lock. He was a designer and cabinet-maker who had workshops in Tottenham Court Road but about whose life we know virtually nothing. Lock was an outstanding draftsman who, probably more than anyone else, understood the French style giving it his own, very English, twist. In his fantasy world – best seen on his mirror frames – a riotous assembly takes place; friendly goats confront surprised foxes; monkeys precariously perched monkeys blow bubbles; squirrels admire spring flowers; Chinaman in coolie hots and drooping moustaches cling to trees, the roots of which dissolve into icicles; all among a riot of fountains, shells and running water.

So did, England ‘go Rococo’? Well, for the answer to that, look around. Visit France, or southern Germany, or Austria or northern Italy and you’ll be tripping over Rococo palaces, churches and townhouses, try looking for the same in this country and your search will be in vain. The truth is Rococo made only a brief stay as a fashionable style and only touched the smart and the grand, even then, mostly in the form of small objects – vases, candlesticks, soup tureens, mirrors - rather than whole interiors.

As styles go, Rococo was elegant and charming but insubstantial. This was to sow the seeds of its downfall since it showed a lack of reverence for classical architecture which became unacceptable to the new generation of Rome-inspired architects, like Robert Adam who openly despised it. In fact, what was called Rococo in England bore little resemblance to the rich, creamy, wedding-cake heights it achieved in Europe. Done properly, Rococo was smart, urban and sophisticated it was also expensive and hard to master. Rococo designs demanded that each craftsman be also an outstanding artist as well. That was asking too much. John Betjeman, the great architectural historian, said that political history explains the style’s failure to launch. Because of the Civil War and gradual reform of Parliament, the aristocracy took a greater interest in politics here than on the Continent. Rococo required commitment and we were just too busy with other things. Perhaps it was a victory for the roundheads after all.

Styles never quite come to a full stop. In the early 19th Century the rococo impulse was revived under the flamboyant Prince Regent. Its last hurrah was at the turn of the century with Art Nouveau, when it made a flamboyant if brief return. While the austere geometry of modernism governed much of design thinking during the twentieth century, designers continually returned to organic, natural curves as a source of inspiration in the 1950s, and the psychedelic 1960s.

Fantastical, daring, highly decorative and never, ever sensible, it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by Rococo. There again, as a Cavalier, I suppose I would say that.