Throughout the centuries, the cabriole leg form has been used in many different styles of furniture in many different cultures. The form is thought to originate in ancient Chinese art and architecture and through the centuries the Chinese have used this form extensively. In fact, the ball & claw foot, often associated with the peak of the Georgian style in 18th century America, is thought to have originated in Chinese culture to depict a dragon’s claw clutching a pearl, symbolizing power and wisdom.
Furniture isn’t the only place that we see the graceful “S” curve shape of the cabriole leg. It also frequently shows up in other items such as Chinese porcelains.
While the form may have originated centuries earlier, half way around the globe, today the pieces most associated with the cabriole “S” curve are the furniture forms of early to late 18th century America. So with the work progressing on the shaping of the cabriole legs for my tea table, I thought I’d take a minute to show some different variations that are common in American furniture that can be employed to give cabriole legs a different feel.
Pictured above are several different forms of the common cabriole leg. The form on the left is probably the most widely recognized and used version of the leg. It’s the style I’m using for my tea table and the style most commonly used in early furniture. The leg has the subtle “S” curve and turned pad foot (also known as a Dutch foot) common to most cabriole legs. The leg in the center is a slightly different form. This leg is completely turned on the lathe, from the leg block at the top all the way through the offset pad foot. These legs are turned using two different centers at the foot end. The first, in line with the center of the leg stock is used to turn the foot. The foot is then repositioned to an offset center to turn the tapered leg, which meets the foot at the “heel”. The leg to the right is a bolder style commonly seen in French pieces, and therefore commonly referred to as a French cabriole leg. This style is square in cross section for the entire length of the curve and has no distinct foot.
In addition to the leg style, there are several different common variations of feet that can serve to terminate the bottom of the leg. Pictured below are four of the most common foot styles found on early American furniture.
The first foot pictured above is the common pad or Dutch foot. This is the style of foot I’m using for my tea table and the most common form seen. The bottom is turned on a lathe (or carved as I’m doing in the podcast) and the rest is shaped by hand. Notice the incredibly thin and delicate ankle on this particular example. This feature is very characteristic of pieces from earlier in the period.
The next foot is called a slipper foot. This is a very delicately shaped foot that looks very nice on light tea tables and early style dressing tables and highboys when paired with a leg with more delicate proportions than I’m using. The slipper foot is one of my favorite forms. It gives a piece a very light, delicate feel when added to a matching leg.
The next two feet are more typical of pieces from later in the period when the leg proportions began to become more stout. The first is called a trifid (meaning three lobed or three toed) or drake foot. It is a slightly heavier foot that looks better on a slightly stronger, heavier leg.
Finally, we have the well known ball and claw foot. This one is in a Philadelphia style as noted by the powerful gripping claws, webbed toes and slightly flattened ball. This foot also looks better on a more heavily poportioned leg, typical of later in the period.
As you can see, the variations of the cabriole leg are really only limited by your own imagination. The examples above are just a few of the more common variations historically seen in 18th century American furniture. Styles can be as simple and plain or as elaborate and addorned as your imagination can dream up. While not an appealing style to me, the Rococo leg shown below is just one example of how detailed and elaborate one can take this simple, yet beautiful form.