History of the Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers and how to style it at home

We discover how this staple of the Georgian period became a timeless icon of design

A shiny Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers against a black background

A shape so ubiquitous that we now take it for granted, the bow-fronted chest of drawers first emerged in the late Georgian period. It was a functional, confident design that appealed to the growing middle classes and became a solid middle-market staple of practicality and beauty that is still sought out today.

TAKE A BOW

Over the years of the Georgian period (from 1714 to c1830-37), furniture styles varied ugely, but it is perhaps the simple, elegant neoclassical styles of the mid 18th century onwards that mostly come to mind when we think of classic Georgian design. These were pieces distinguished by their craftsmanship and quality of materials. Mahogany was the wood of choice and chests of drawers often featured the Chippendale characteristics of fat or serpentine fronts, shaped bracket feet and ornate brass handles and keyholes. As the century wore on, demand for practical, good-quality furniture increased from the burgeoning middle class and, as the Hepplewhite style superseded Chippendale, the chic and functional bow-fronted chest took centre stage. Usually made of mahogany, sometimes with marquetry or cross-banding in other woods, it featured graduated drawers, splayed feet, brass handles and often a brushing slide (pull-out shelf). Thanks to its usefulness and beauty, it was embraced by homemakers and remains a design that is still much admired.

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A side-on shot of a Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers against a black background

Behind the Brand George Hepplewhite

Along with Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton and Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite was one of the masters of Georgian design. Little is known of the man himself, but he is believed to have served his apprenticeship at Gillows of Lancaster, before setting up as a cabinetmaker in London. A contemporary of Chippendale, he died in 1786 (seven years after Chippendale), but it wasn’t until 1788 that his widow, Alice, posthumously published The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide featuring almost 300 of his designs. The Hepplewhite style is graceful and elegant, favouring geometric shapes and straight or tapered legs. Common decorative motifs were swags, feathers, urns and wheatsheaves. One of his best-known designs is the shield-back chair, but he also popularised the short chest of drawers and the sideboard.

3 Ways to Style

 

PRIDE OF PLACE

A Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers in a traditional Georgian living room

A bow-fronted chest is such a handsome piece of furniture that it deserves a prominent position, where it can be admired by all. Tucked neatly into an alcove in the living room, as shown above, it will provide valuable extra storage too.

 

COUNTRYSIDE LUXE

A Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers in a farmhouse living room with exposed wooden beams and a brown leather Chesterfield sofa

For understated country elegance, pair the lovely patina of Georgian mahogany with exposed beams and whitewashed walls. In the room above, the chest adds a hint of luxury to the rustic scheme, while splashes of blue pull the look together.

 

SCARLET FEVER

A Georgian bow-fronted chest of drawers against a deep scarlet-coloured wall
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Red was a popular choice for walls in the Victorian era, during which these chests continued to be produced. Show off your statement piece of furniture, in an equally statement hall, painted, like this one, in Blazer Modern Emulsion, £45 per 2.5l, by Farrow & Ball.