The Brittany style of antique furniture is named for the province in north-western France where this heavily-carved and very distinctive furniture originated. It was once an independent kingdom called Lesser Britain, hence the name. It is historically a Celtic nation, like Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and so the symbols carved on the furniture are often similar to the ones you will find in those countries. For example, it is not unusual to see carvings on the furniture of festive village folk playing music on bagpipes – an instrument that usually makes us think of Scotland.
The antique furniture from this area was mainly created around the end of the 1800s, when the region became popular in France. The sudden attention was due to the success of a collection of traditional country songs and folk tales called The Ballads of Brittany. As a result, fashionable French people started to buy hand-crafted furniture in the traditional Brittany style as well as the region’s hand-painted Quimper pottery.
The furniture is often crafted in dark chestnut wood and the ornate carvings tell a story. Typical symbols include ship wheels due to the fact that this is a maritime area that is heavily dependent on fishing. Other carvings show scenes of French country life, with rustic images like people spinning wool into yarn by a thatched cottage, or farmers reaping wheat in the fields beneath a windmill, or praying in thanks over their abundant harvest. Other typical scenes include jovial villagers celebrating with a glass of wine or flagon of beer, playing music and dancing. They are always clothed in traditional Celtic dress, which adds to the charm of the pastoral scenes.
Carved figurines of men and women are also very typical of this furniture style, perhaps as table legs or as supports on a buffet between the lower cabinet and upper hutch. Again, they wear Celtic dress and the hand-carving is so skilful every detail right down to the folds in the clothing often looks remarkably lifelike.
Brittany style furniture is truly a form of French Country folk art that continues to enchant antique furniture lovers more than a century later. One thing is for sure, the charming carved scenes and figurines will always be a conversation starter!