Thomas Chippendale – Eighteenth Century English Furniture

George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755
George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755

By the end of the 1740’s the furniture trade in England had entered a period of almost unparalleled productivity. The centre of the less rigidly controlled furniture trade was London, more particularly St Martin’s Lane.  It was conveniently located nearby to the government offices and their rich contracts. St Martin’s Lane was also the location of the St Martin’s Lane Academy, founded by artist and social commentator of the day William Hogarth in 1735.

With a concentration of artists, craftsmen, architects and tradesmen all working in the same area, there was ample opportunity for exchange of views, ideas and skills.

George III, Chippendale period Mahogany commode

George III, Chippendale period Mahogany commode

The system of wealthy patronage set high standards of design and execution. It provided ideal conditions for fine quality of goods and craftsmanship as well as great design to flourish. The very best furniture was expensive and created for a very privileged elite, who were all greatly concerned with style and fashion. They wanted superb furniture to furnish their equally superbly designed houses. It was no use having a jewel box, if you were unable to fill it with jewels inside.

Excellence in cabinetmaking during this period was led by a man whose reputation has only grown in stature over the intervening period.

Originally an eighteenth century village master craftsman, who designed and made furniture for his local clients in his own workshop at Otley in rural Yorkshire, Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 1779) was a progressive and ambitious chap. Clever too.

He moved into the town (London) and set up shop opposite a place where successful men of business, and lords and ladies met, to enjoy a daily outing, some business and the rage new fashionable drink coffee.

Sound familiar?

He hung a chair of his own design, outside the shop, which was so conveniently located in the fashionable part of the town. He wanted to be noticed and was soon successful.

He gained a great client list, because he offered a quality product, of excellent design, made from the latest and best materials, including the new rage imported timbers mahogany and satinwood.

Chippendale called himself an ‘upholder’ because he also sold beautiful textiles and soft furnishings that complimented his own passionately produced product. He was flexible too, as any really progressive chap should be. He also understood about servicing his clients and, as well as furniture of his own design, he provided everything they needed for the art of fine living. However did he last longer than fashion dictates?

Doll’s House at Nostell Priory by Thomas Chippendale

Well, yes, he did.

The route to success was publication. Published designs advertised the skills of the cabinetmaker as they were all competing for work in a lively, and sometimes ruthless market.

The effect of the design books was to promote a spread of new ideas. The consequence however would be an increase in the pressure to, from time to time, come up with something new.

Thomas Chippendale, it seems, wanted to be remembered for his innovative creative ideas.

In 1754 he published The Gentleman & Cabinet Maker’s Director, a book full of all his designs for all sorts of furniture and furnishings, including some simply fabulous mirrors.

With it he proved he was adaptable to all sorts of stylistic trends.

You name it, he could design it and make it. And, it was always just fabulous.

But now here’s the really clever part. Chippendale allowed others who subscribed to his Director to use his designs copyright free.

Furniture that has proved to have been be made by the hands of Thomas Chippendale has today attained almost rock star status. It is easy to understand why when you look at the sheer quality of what he produced.

His attention to quality and detail has become renowned and furniture made by him, in reality, is quite breathtaking.

Chippendale offered his clients a complete house furnishing service. He supplied them with enormous quantities of furniture of all kinds.

There was an increasing demand for lighter more elegant furniture, especially with the rise in popularity of the Neoclassical mode of design.

One of the most important commissions of his entire career was for Sir Rowland Winn of Nostell Priory, Yorkshire. The Doll’s House at Nostell is a social and cultural historians delight. It is richly furnished in marble, silk, chintz, silver, walnut, mahogany, porcelain and glass.

It is a treasury of craftsmanship and a unique record of daily life in a great country house of the period.

No detail has been overlooked from the needlework fire screen in the delicious dressing room to the tiny glass mouse under the kitchen table.

It is a great reflection of the life people lived upstairs and down as portrayed in the current popular television series Downton Abbey. However this was not the Edwardian age but Georgian society , and it is well to remember some of the less glamorous facts about its intense consciousness of rank and class in endeavouring to understand Chippendale’s career.

Diana and Minerva Commode by Thomas Chippendale

The hauteur which made ‘the English milordi’ notorious abroad, was also directed at those he believed to be his inferiors at home. The natural order was something they earnestly believed as it had been drummed into them from an early age.  ‘Tradesmen’ such as Chippendale were often treated poorly, seen as a people apart and condescended to and bullied and very often long intervals elapsed between payments for their work.

The elite thought of him or herself as the patron dispensing bounty. It was what they had been brought up to believe and they didn’t really question it. Chippendale’s surviving letters reveal that he reacted by displaying the required subservience and by offering continual expressions of gratitude.

Thomas Chippendale more than likely accepted these values simply because he had to make his way in the world and in this era chaps like him needed to dedicate their book to a belted earl, or royal personage, go in for a little smuggling, or take part in a rigged auction to survive.

Divine painted corner cabinet designed for actor David Garrick by Thomas Chippendale

It was all part of playing the game. None of these activities would have harmed his reputation for skilled design and craftsmanship.

He was a businessman in a fiercely competitive trade and he did so effectively enough, although without dying rich. He just made other people wealthy at the time, and since.

The Diana and Minerva Commode, when it was made in 1773 for Edwin Lascelles of Harewood, cost 86 pounds. It is like a ‘grand dressing table’ and during a recent restoration at Harewood House a few years ago it was placed back into the State bedroom where it was originally part of a suite of furniture made by Thomas Chippendale specifically for the room.

On the facade it depicts the two Roman goddesses, Diana and Minerva, which are depicted in marquetry (inlaid timbers) and ivory on its doors. They are disposed looking towards each other as pair would be placed. It is good to stress that a pair is not two the same but two mirrored images.

This is often misunderstood and is important as it adds value. The commode carcass is made of mahogany, oak and pine, and then the whole is veneered with luxurious satinwood and inlaid with many other exotic timbers. It is a simply splendid antique.

The so-called Harrington Commode thought to be by master craftsman Thomas Chippendale

Satinwood was a timber making its presence felt in the second half of the eighteenth century in England. It provided a suitable ground for inlaid decoration and was highly valued among cabinetmakers.

There are two types of satinwood from the West and East Indies respectively. West Indian was used as a veneer on quality furniture between 1770 and 1810 when a violent storm destroyed the remainder of the trees.

It bears a strong resemblance to mahogany in its figure and when left unpolished is distinctly golden yellow. East Indian satinwood is also golden yellow, harder and heavier with a pronounced stripy figure which moves easily in different lights. Introduced into Britain late in the eighteenth century it is rarely however found in furniture of that time, although it was used in furniture made between 1880 and 1920.

This fact often provides the clue in recognizing later Edwardian reproductions of eighteenth century pieces.

Chippendale often produced furniture to designs by his successful colleague neoclassical Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728 – 1792), who was for a time, ‘all the rage’ as well.

A gilded chair designed by Adam was produced by Chippendale and the owners have the documentation to prove it.

Today many owners of great English country houses are thrilled their ancestors had the foresight to hang onto pieces originally made by Thomas Chippendale, rather than consign them to the ashes for the sake of fashion.

They were so well built too they just wouldn’t wear out!

His designs accommodated the frivolous Rococo and its love of asymmetry, the delightfully whimsical Chinoiserie – the European evocation of the Chinese taste and, the Neoclassical style, whose symmetrical perfection for many was very pleasing.

Today the designs of Thomas Chippendale have been copied and adapted for over 200 years. Lots of manufacturers and cabinetmakers have purchased his book, which has had, since his death many editions.

Literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of furniture have been made using his patterns and today they still grace homes around the world, especially in America.

In places like Washington, Boston and New York for a hundred years after his death they absolutely loved his designs and adapted them for local use, such as the fabulous bed in a wardrobe that he made for Robert Adam.

What a sensible piece of furniture it turned out to be for any age.

By the late nineteenth century the Chinese were also manufacturing pieces designed by Chippendale, as well as the two other English drawing masters who had followed his lead and published as well.

George Hepplewhite design for a chair

George Hepplewhite design for a chair

They were drawing masters Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. The Chinese then shipped them to England, to America and to Australia as part of the China Trade.

Now here’s the thing. All these Chinese copy pieces, according to the tax man and the 100 year rule are now classified as an antique! But are they as valuable as the pieces made by Thomas Chippendale in his workshop or others in workshops during his lifetime?

Well no is the answer.

Seems Thomas Chippendale, either wittingly or unwillingly, turned out to be a wise old chap. With original documentation attached many of his pieces today are worth into the millions of dollars in economic terms.

Phillip Reinagle painted Mrs Congreve and her children in their fashionable London Drawing Room in 1782. The furniture and mirrors in the room are influenced by the designs of cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale and architect Robert Adam.  Both were involved in reviving the classical influence on architecture, interiors and objet d’art. Everything in the room from the paintings to the chairs, mirrors, porcelain and textiles is of sheer quality, in both design and manufacture. The carpet is highly desirable, probably being an early example of what generically became known as Axminster, named for the town where carpet weaver Thomas Whitty set up shop in 1755 and produced simply splendid woven carpets of superior design and quality.

Phillip Reinagle painted Mrs Congreve and her children in their fashionable London Drawing Room in 1782. The furniture and mirrors in the room are influenced by the designs of cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale and architect Robert Adam. Both were involved in reviving the classical influence on architecture, interiors and objet d’art. Everything in the room from the paintings to the chairs, mirrors, porcelain and textiles is of sheer quality, in both design and manufacture. The carpet is highly desirable, probably being an early example of what generically became known as Axminster, named for the town where carpet weaver Thomas Whitty set up shop in 1755 and produced simply splendid woven carpets of superior design and quality.

The rest are graded down from that, according to quality, age, timber used, condition etc, all those things that add up to make an antique valuable.

They can also only be said to be made ‘in the style of Thomas Chippendale’.

The works of Thomas Chippendale reflect the evolution of humankind spiritually, socially and culturally. For the country houses and museums around the world who own them today their value is in many ways priceless.

Each year they, together with the other wonderful pieces by individual artists and designers from each generation, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors world wide.

Chippendale’s story certainly proves the theory about the power of one! And then there is all the people over the years who have benefited from his skill, ingenuity, innovation, creativity and above all his generosity of spirit.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

 

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