A to Z

General terms used that are not category specific.
Search for glossary terms (regular expression allowed)


Term Main definition
Button Hook

buttonhook is a tool used to facilitate the closing of buttoned shoes, gloves or other clothing. It consists of a hook fixed to a handle which may be simple or decorative as part of a dresser set or chatelaine. To use, the hook end is inserted through the buttonhole to capture the button by the shank and draw it through the opening.

Bas Relief

A form of carving or moulding in which the design projects out from the flat surface of the background.


An elaborate ornamented style which was popular in Europe from approximately 1600 to 1750. In furniture, the Baroque style favored flamboyant carving, painting, and gilding. Typical motifs included acanthus, shells, and elaborate scrolls. A style of architecture, art and decoration which is bold details and sweeping curves usually gilt in decoration.


An unmeltable, transparent but easily coloured resin, created by the reaction of phenol and formaldehyde with alkaline and acid catalysts. It was first discovered in 1872, and then rediscovered in 1907 by L.H. Baekeland who gave it his name. It is the most universal and long-lasting of early plastics and could be used from anything from jewellery to light-switches, Thermos jugs, tea sets and even furniture. The most popular colours were mottled blue and green, but plain brown and cream that was used to imitate ivory, were common.

Although the first commercially successful plastic, Bakelite was not the first. Earlier claims to the name (although there is argument about the exact definition) would be Bois Durci, made from ground ebony and blood, Parkesine (cellulose nitrate), shellac from insect secretions and gutta-percha based on bark. There was also vulcanite or ebonite from rubber, celluloid from camphor and casein from milk.

These plastics are now widely collected and the range of articles is seemingly endless: jewellery, book bindings, pseudo-bronze plaques, combs, fountain-pens, photograph frames, shoe horns and salad servers. For identification, wet Bakelite smells of carbolic and celluloid smells of camphor when rubbed with a cloth. 


The first carpet company at Axminster, Devon, UK was established in 1755. It supplied a Chinoiserie carpet for the Brighton Pavilion and a Turkish one for Sir John Sloane´s House. In 1835 it closed and its equipment was taken over by the Wilton factory. Since then the term Axminster has applied to carpets produced mechanically by Wilton and those from the Kidderminster carpet factory.


Various Roman armies used to divide their loot and slaves by auction. In Britain the first record of auctioneering comes at the end of the 1400´s, with an official of Henry Vll´s court known as the King´s Over-Roper. To ´rope´was to shout out for sale (which might give one a ´ropey´throat) and the word survives in Scotland and Northern England where sales may be called ´roupes´. After the Restoration of Charles ll in 1660, auctions became common in London, with Covent Garden as the centre of the trade. Amongst the oldest Bbritish firms to survive are Sotheby´s, which stems from Baker´s book sales beginning in 1744, and Christie´s, founded in 1766. Dreweatt Neate of Newbury also has its origins in the 1760´s. Bohams, which is still in part a family-run firm, and Phillips, founded by James Christie´s sales clerk,followed at the end of the 1700´s. Other countries may have longer traditions, but today British auctioneers effectively sell up the world.

Art Nouveau
A new style, short lived and excessive, which thrived between c.1880 and 1914. It first appeared in Britain in the 1880’s and spread throughout Europe, particularly Belgium, France and Germany, in the early 1890s. It survived for 20 years, reflecting a return to nature and to the values of good workmanship. Known in Italy as stile Liberty, in Germany and Scandinavia asJugendstil, and Secession in Austria. The characteristics of Art Nouveau were drawn from nature and featured plants and flowers in sinuous curves and convolutions.
Art Deco

The first truly modern style which made full use of mechanised production and new materials. The name derives from the first major exhibition of decorative arts held after the First World War in 1925, L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.


The process of estimating or assessing the value of a piece.


The use of finishes and other techniques to create the appearance of age. Antiquing can be applied to metal home accents, wooden pieces, and even leather to create an elegantly worn look.


A term used in the past to describe Greek and Roman artefacts, but since Victorian times it has widened to included anything over 100 years old. This is the legal definition for export and other purposes.

Originally a small ancient Egyptian or Greek cosmetic bottle carved from alabaster. Later examples were made of glass, pottery and other materials. Cylindrical, with a round base and spreading rim, they are often iridescent after being buried for years.

Alabaster is a fine grained white, grey, yellow or reddish lime-stone, or form of the mineral gypsum which can be cut so thinly as to be translucent and polished to a smooth and waxy finish. It was even used for glazing small church windows in the Middle Ages. From the middle of the 1300's Nottingham was known as a centre for small-scale religious carvings in alabaster, but the British industry was killed in the 1500's by the Reformation. Often used in sculpture, decorative stone panelling, beads and cabochons.


Loose term covering some surface treatment techniques used to make objects look old. Also a metallurgical term to describe hardening an alloy by heating to a temperature where a precipitate forms from a super-saturated solid solution.


The precursor of the pocket calculator is still sometimes found built in to playpens. It is a frame with wires across it, each threaded with 10 beads. It is at least as old as the ancient Greeks (the word is Greek for cyphering table, since it can also be used to teach writing), and it was modified by the Chinese. Rather crude examples from British schools and nurseries are common enough, but elaborate ones were made by the 1600's mathematical instrument maker Robert Jole.