Physical Description


A description of the appearance of a work expressed in generic terms, without reference to the subject depicted. This includes the names of any recognizable patterns, motifs, or textures used in the decoration of the work.




The description of the physical appearance of the object should be as objective as possible. It should not identify the subjects depicted, but rather describe the work in generic terms.


The physical description of a work is a starting point for study; it is used to identify a work, and as a foundation for its interpretation. It also makes it possible to appreciate the relationship of applied decoration to form, and of materials to form and decoration.


The materials of which a work was made, and the processes and techniques by which they were fashioned, should be indicated in the category MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES. The manner in which the materials and techniques were used to create the work should be specified in the category FACTURE. The physical condition of the work should be indicated in the category CONDITION/ EXAMINATION HISTORY. Any restoration or treatment of the work should be described in the category CONSERVATION/TREATMENT HISTORY. What is depicted in or by the work should be specified in the category SUBJECT MATTER.


The prose description of a work can be indexed in INDEXING TERMS, thus allowing access to works with similar physical characteristics, for example, all writing tables with inlaid decoration in an ogee pattern.

Physical Description - Physical Appearance


Description of salient aspects of the physical appearance of the work and its decoration, including design elements and pattern names.


Carpet is kilim type, with smooth, flat surface. Field is decorated with 15 medallions which are connected by stylized scrolling vine motif; medallions contain various flowers and fruit trees with small birds; borders are decorated with alternating geometric designs and arabesques.

The interior behind the roll top has numerous drawers which spring open at the pressure of concealed buttons and levers. In the superstructure behind the large gilt bronze plaque is a contraption of many parts that moves out and opens at the turn of a key. It contains a folding reading stand and side "wings" of compartments with mechanically opening tops, one of which contains an inkwell and sand pot, with small drawers below. At the back of the desk is a removable panel for access to the movement [Figure 13]. [1]

This great wine cooler... is supported on four massive volute scroll feet from the base of which rise beautifully modeled griffin heads. The size and height of the heads is balanced by two splendid lions rampant, which act as handles and are also the supporters of the Cecil arms. [2]

Below the adjustable top, which can be tilted to form a reading stand, there is a swivelling shelf at either side, on which to stand a candlestick. On the right there is a drawer fitted with small compartments for writing materials. A silk work-bag on a wooden frame can be pulled out at the other side. The frieze at the front is in the form of a false drawer, with ring handles. At the back, a fire-screen with a panel of pleated silk can be drawn up. [3]

The globe is mounted on a decorated stand. The stand is painted with polychrome flowers and red cartouches bearing chinoiserie scenes on a yellow vernis Martin ground, in a technique for which the Martin brothers obtained a monopoly in the mid-eighteenth century [Figure 10].

The mosaic contains a central scene depicting a passage from Vergil's Aeneid. The scene is surrounded by three areas of border motifs. The chevron is quite rare; however, the guilloche is standard and the leaf rinceau is typical of the third and fourth centuries CE [Figure 26]. [4]

Jar with high waist, short collar-like neck, plain rim, plain base, and lug handles. [5]

ogee profile with scrolled acanthus leaves and berries at center and corners. [6]


Important information in the description should be indexed.

Physical Description - Physical Appearance - Indexing Terms


Indexing terms that characterize the physical description of the work.


egg and dart moldings
Greek key pattern
pomegranate pattern
coat of arms
false drawer
cut-card work


Indexing terms should be assigned on the basis of a direct observation of the work of art or a reliable description of it from a primary or secondary source; they should echo the focal points of the prose description provided in PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION - PHYSICAL APPEARANCE.


Indexing terms provide easy access to the physical description of the work of art. Assigning keywords or indexing terms to the physical elements of a work of art makes it possible to identify particular works and to compare similar works, such as cabinets with bombé fronts.


Terms may be searched alone, or in combination with other characteristics of the work. One scholar may be interested in the use of allover patterns in the broad sense, while another may wish to find only those works with a specific pattern, such as powderwork.


The use of a controlled vocabulary is recommended, such as the AAT (especially Physical Attributes Facet), ACRL/RBMS Binding Terms, or Reyniès' Le Mobilier Domestique.

Physical Description - Remarks


Additional information, comments, or notes about the description of the physical appearance of the object.

Physical Description - Citations


References to bibliographic sources or unpublished documents that provided the basis for the information recorded in PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION.



1 Gillian Wilson, Selections from the Decorative Arts in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, California: The J. Paul Getty Museum Publications, 1983), p. 88.

2 Gervase Jackson-Stops, ed., Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), cat. no. 120, p.189.

3 Maurice Tomlin, Catalog of Adam Period Furniture (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1972), no. T/7, p. 164.

4 Helen Lattimore, in The J. Paul Getty Museum, edited by Burton B. Fredericksen (Malibu, California: The J. Paul Getty Museum Publications, 1975) p. 55.

5 Robin Dowden, National Gallery of Art, Collection Management System, Data Dictionary, 1992, p. 39.

6 Description of an Italian gilt frame in Richard R. Brettell and Steven Starling, The Art of the Edge: European Frames 1300-1900 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1986), cat. no. 26, p. 71.