I Want a Fancy Chair! John and Hugh Finlay of Baltimore

Side Chair by John and Hugh Finlay, ca. 1815-20. Met, NYC.

Empire furniture appeared around 1800 in France, England (where it was called Regency) and America. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-18th century had sparked a vogue for Greco-Roman motifs that permeated fashion, furnishings and fine art.

Jacques-Louis David, Madame Récamier, 1800. Louvre.

In David's portrait of Madame Récamier, painted in 1800, the society beauty is depicted garbed in an Grecian-style gown, reclining on a Roman lectus (daybed), with a Roman candelabra at the side.

French Empire Console, late 18th century. Image: The Red List.

Revolutionary fervour in France and the fledging American nation also played a role in promoting Neoclassical taste, as ancient Greece and Rome were seen as apt symbols for democracy and the new republics.

American Empire Sofa from the Red Room in the White House.
The Red Room sofa in use! The White House.

Throw in Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, and you've got furniture sporting an assortment of sphinx heads, caryatids, laurel leaves, swags, Greek frets and massive animal paw feet (a Roman favourite.)

English Regency Armchair, ca. 1804. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Featuring rich colours, dark woods and prominent gilded Egyptian, Greek and Roman motifs, in its more full-on forms Empire Style can appear a bit over the top for modern eyes, like something that's dropped out of a period-piece theme park.

Card Tables by John and Hugh Finlay, ca. 1825. Image: Introspective Magazine

Using that much decoration requires finesse, and for Baltimore's 19th century elite, the "go to" firm for the finest in "fancy" furniture was that of the Irish-born brothers John and Hugh Finlay.

John and Hugh Finlay, Card Table and Side Chair. Kaufman Collection.

Hugh Finlay travelled in Europe to find the latest designs to inspire his customers. Drawing ideas from popular design books such as Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, the Finlays fashioned updated versions of ancient classics such as the Grecian klismos chair (as seen in the image above) and the Roman lectus. They also took inspiration from English Neoclassical designers such as Thomas Sheraton.

John and Hugh Finlay, Grecian Couch, between 1810 and 1830. Kaufman Collection.
Using painted decoration rather than oversize (and expensive) gilded ormolu mounts, the brothers and their team of craftspeople (at times numbering over 65) embellished their pieces with graceful acanthus leaves, rinceaux, swags, sphinxes and Greek keys.

John and Hugh Finlay, Grecian Couch. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

While much Empire furniture can appear heavy, the Finlay daybed above is distinguished by its slender proportions. While it may not say "comfy" to us, one has to admit, it's lovely to behold.