Bull's Eye Decoration

Welsh Oak Furniture

A Short History of Bull’s Eye Decoration.

By Louise Phillips of Elaine Phillips Antiques

In February I was asked to speak at the Federation of Italian Art and Antique Dealers Annual Conference in Modena. This was not only in my role as Chairman of the BADA but also as a British Antique Dealers’ Association member based in the UK. 

As part of my host’s hospitality I was given a personal tour of The Gallerie Estense in Modena by the curator,  Dott. Federico Fischetti, when the museum was closed (An incredible experience to be the only two people there!). The Estense is home to the famous Bernini bust of Francesco I.

Bull's Eye Decoration
On my visit I was fascinated to see the decoration on this vase. Those of you who are Welsh oak furniture enthusiasts will recognise the roundel or bull’s eye decoration. On my return to the UK I decided to look into the background of the use of this design. Hence my article.

This ceramic vase dates from the VII Century and was found in the Minelli Furnace in Bazzano near Modena.

The two pieces illustrated are items I sold to a European collector.Bull's Eye Decoration

The first piece is a court cupboard dated 1660. The second, a rare 17th century Welsh oak wall or spice cupboard. Both feature the distinctive pattern.

Bull's Eye DecorationAn early form of the term ‘bull’s eye’ seems to stem from the Latin for eye – ‘oculus’. This is a circular opening in the centre of a dome as seen at The Pantheon in Rome where the oculus illuminates the interior. Originating in antiquity, it is a feature of Byzantine and Neoclassical architecture. The term was later known as an œil-de-boeuf from the French or simply a "bull's-eye”

Another source for the term ‘bull’s eye’ is an early type of window glass known as Crown Glass. In this process, glass was blown into a "crown" or hollow globe. This was then flattened by reheating and spinning out the bowl-shaped piece of glass (bullion) into a flat disk. Bull's Eye DecorationThe glass was then cut to the size required. The thinnest glass was in a band at the edge of the disk, with the glass becoming thicker and more opaque toward the centre. Known as a bullseye, the thicker centre area around the pontil mark was used for less expensive windows. 

I found an example of this on a recent trip to Austria when I visited the Church of St Primus and Felizian in Maria Wörth. The images pictured are of a window in the nave.

Bull's Eye DecorationThe next piece I ‘discovered’ is in The Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is a glass bottle made in two pieces from the 10th-11th century and probably from Iran.

The decoration was impressed with tongs before the two pieces were joined to make the bottle. The design consists of repeating bulls-eyes, a pattern that was especially popular in decorating the surfaces of small bronze vessels.

Roundels were often used to decorate Welsh furniture as illustrated in the examples shown here. Bull's Eye DecorationThe miniature or child’s coffer circa 1660-1680. The design dates back to the dot and circle pattern found on early stone monuments and on slate ornaments of the 19th century decorating the slate doorstop made around 1890 in the Caernarfonshire area.  The pattern was made using a brace and attachment.

At around the same time as the slate pieces were being made in Wales the design was also being used on other forms and materials as illustrated by this pair of Arts & Crafts Benham & Bull's Eye DecorationFroud brass vases with ‘bullseye’ and grooved decoration designed by Christopher Dresser (British, 1834-1904) and dating from around 1885. 

It would be wonderful to know if all these craftsmen working in different parts of the world in the decorative arts were influenced by any of these or other objects or whether it was sheer coincidence that they ‘invented/designed’ their own very similar patterns. Who knows?