The relationship between humankind and our fellow species has long influenced design. Lion’s paw feet adorn furniture from a range of historical periods. These charming feet are not only decorative but also full of symbolism.
The king of beasts
The lion’s symbolic power has resonated with countless generations of royalty and aristocracy. Since the ancient world, humans have revered the lion as a symbol of strength, majesty, courage, and fortitude.
The earliest examples of paw feet on furniture survive from ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians believed that strength could be conveyed from the animal represented on a chair to the person sitting in it. As a result, they raised a lion’s paw on a plinth base. This ‘drum base’ separated the paw from the dirty floor so that a seamless transfer of power could occur.
Lion iconography permeated throughout the ancient world, with the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans all following suit. The Romans commonly terminated a single-based table with a lion’s leg and paw feet, hence they acquired the name monopodium foot. Of course, there's an irony in the fact that Roman emperors commonly kept these majestic beasts in captivity or used them for entertainment.
It was these classical beginnings that saw lion’s paw feet appear again and again from the Renaissance onwards, as designers embraced antiquity.
Lion's paw feet in antique furniture
Different periods have favoured various animal feet according to their design aims. We see the prolific ball and claw feet, pad feet, and hoof feet at different points. But the distinctive lion’s paw has been revived particularly extensively, and this popularity is worth exploring.
During the 18th Century, a groundswell against the heavy and imposing furniture of William and Mary prompted a change. In the Queen Anne period, furniture became far more graceful and refined. An interest in classical themes naturally emerged and, because of the prominence of animalistic imagery in antiquity, it wasn’t long before animal feet appeared on English furniture.
Excellence in cabinet-making during the Georgian period did great justice to the lion’s paw foot. Chippendale himself was a great fan of terminating chairs and other pieces with the monopodium foot. The transition between the Georgian and Regency period, when furniture became larger and more extravagant, demonstrates the versatility of the lion’s paw.
The Regency was an eclectic melting pot of influences and ideals. The Prince Regent oversaw a period of design that combined antiquity with new exotic timbers and oriental influences. And yet, despite this influx of new styles, the lion’s paw survived. In fact, the Regency represents its heyday in English furniture.
Paw feet were a natural accent for the extravagant furniture that decked out Regency homes. Regency designers sought to revive Greco-Roman models in a more exact manner than ever before. They even produced tripod stands and tables in the ancient Roman style, with the classic monopodium foot.
In particular, one of the most well-known Regency designers, Thomas Hope, wholeheartedly embraced the lion's paw. Inspired by his Grand Tour travels, he terminated everything from vases to cabinets with lion's paw feet.
The symbol of Empire
The lion’s intrinsic qualities of strength and majesty, and more controversially pride and wrath, saw it adopted again and again by leaders. Most notably, French Empire furniture portrays lion’s paw feet on a majority of pieces. During the Empire, Napoleon imposed a near-total centralisation of the arts. His designers made furniture that was large and simple- reflecting the supposed dignity of his reign- but adorned with symbolic motifs.
Ormolu mounts referenced antiquity and the lion's paw adorned the bottom of all sorts of pieces, often gilded for impact. For Napoleon, the lion was an obvious choice. His grip on power was tenuous and based entirely on military victories, so he channelled the power of the king of beasts just as his Egyptian ancestors had.
Adaptations of the lion's paw
As we have seen, the lion’s paw survived numerous periods and its presence spread far and wide. But this does not mean we see the same paw again and again. In fact, the monopodium foot changed dramatically over the centuries. We see primitive versions in early examples, where knowledge of the actual anatomy of the lion was often limited. In simpler countryside furniture, the foot is also carved in low relief and you may not notice the paws until closer inspection.
At the other end of the scale, as cabinet-making techniques advanced, lion's paws developed life-like clarity. As a result, paws emphasised individual toes and sometimes even had claws. Often, cabriole legs blend seamlessly into the paw and create the impression of an entire leg. In other examples, you simply see a lion’s paws projecting from the bottom of a piece of case furniture. The claws were sometimes shown gripping a ball, as the prolific ball and claw foot merged with the lion's paw.
The lion’s paw generally became bigger and more imposing over time, reflecting growing empires and increasing skill.
The lion's legacy
Paw feet are full of history and symbolic might. Not only did they have a huge presence in French and English furniture, but also throughout Europe and in Asia. These feet were so appealing that they even appear on sleek Mid Century furniture designed by the likes of Maison Jansen.
Paw feet give a piece of furniture a finished feel and demonstrate skilled cabinet-making. They are one of the many fantastic features that elevate antique furniture above any modern examples. Browse all the lion's paw feet in our collection here.