Almost all historical sources believe that the Ball & Claw design was derived from the Chinese: a dragon’s claw grasping a crystal ball, or a pearl, or sometimes a scared, flaming jewel. In Chinese mythology, the dragon (Emperor) would be guarding (with the triple claw foot) the symbol (ball – for wisdom, or purity) from evil forces trying to steal it.
Another interpretation is that the ball symbolizes a polished river stone being held firmly by a crane, who stands diligently over her nest. Resting on one leg, with the stone held in mid air by the other, the mother crane watches over her young and would quickly awaken if she were to fall asleep and drop the stone.
The designs of Chinese and Japanese artisans came to the attention of Europeans through trade. Porcelains, chinoiserie, and bronzes would have displayed examples of the ball and claw. The design element first appeared on English silver. Craftsmen in other arts, textiles, furniture, and glass quickly copying this ‘trend’ of consumer interest in exotic, far away lands.
English cabinetmakers are credited with transforming the dragon’s claw into a bird’s talon or a lion’s paw; the lion representing English authority. The ball and claw was popular in England from 1710 until 1750.
Mistakenly, many may attribute the ball and claw design to Thomas Chippendale, when in fact, his Director of 1754 contained no such design since it was already out of fashion in England. But Colonial America lagged somewhat behind in fashion trends and enjoyed using the ball and claw design until the late 1790’s.
Antique furniture experts can often identify the origin of a piece by the character of the ball and claw. For instance, New York cabinetmakers used a large, squared, boxy foot; while Philadelphia preferred the slightly flattened ball. The Goddard and Townsend craftsmen of Newport are well known for their undercut ball and claw with an opening between the talon and ball.
Personally, the Ball & Claw is one of my favorite design motifs because it combines history, craft, and sculpture – History, in that every civilization since the Egyptians have incorporated bird or animal symbolism in their designs for weapons, furnishings, jewelry and art. Craft, as fine carving skills are necessary to capture the tension of a claw grasping the ball. And sculpture, because the nature of any good design – whether in a table, chair or chest – requires that the ball and claw gracefully ‘anchors’ the piece.
One of the first reproductions my company ever made was the Philadelphia Piecrust Table – so named because the top edge raised rim is carved in a series of curves that resemble the outside rim of a pastry crust. (See photo in 2nd slider above). The delicate piecrust edge, a pattern developed by English silversmiths to conform to popular patterns of silver trays in the 1730s, along with the Chinese inspired ball and claw feet on the tray, inspired this table design.
The three legs on this table taper to slender ankles, then flair into finely formed ball and claw feet with shaped knuckles. I love this table because every inch of it is a work of art, design, and history.
To learn more about the Ball & Claw, or any other design motif worldwide, visit Bienenstock Furniture Library, the world’s largest collection of international rare books on the design and history of furniture, textiles, architecture, and interiors – open and free to professionals and the public.