Chippendale Tercentenary: 1718 – 2018
The style of furniture referred to as Chippendale stems from an evolution of various styles in fashion in the last half of the 18th Century. The first ever to be named for a cabinetmaker rather than bearing the name of a reigning monarch, Chippendale eventually became the most famous name in the history of English furniture when this type of craftsmanship was at its high point.
Thomas Chippendale was born on June 4, 1718 in the market town of Otley, Yorkshire. He was apprenticed to his cabinetmaker father and later worked as a journeyman to Robert Wood of York. He later moved to London and established his own shop and workrooms.
In 1754 he published a book of designs titled The Gentlemen and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Under the title on the first page, Chippendale describes the book as:
“Being a Large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste and Other Ornaments…”
A pattern book, Chippendale’s Director was used by many other cabinetmakers and the designs were adapted by artisans in England, on the European continent and in the American Colonies. The success of this book led to his reputation as one of the leading cabinetmakers of the 18th Century.
He published three editions in 1754, 1755 and 1762. Each edition revealed Chippendale’s designs evolving, reflecting changing British tastes and fashion. By the last edition, his designs began to exhibit signs of neo-classicism. This trend was influenced by the renewed interest in classical motifs such as columns, Acanthus leaves, fluting and Greek key. Particularly in the designs of architect Robert Adam with whom he worked on several projects, and the Palladian architecture of the early 18th Century.
The Director illustrated four main styles:
- English with deep carving, the curved Cabriole leg often carved with shells, vines and leaves, and scrolls at the knee.
- Elaborate French Rococo.
- Chinese style, referred to as Chinoiserie, with latticework and lacquer, and on some case pieces, adorned with elaborate japanning.
- Gothic with pointed arches, quatrefoils and fret-worked legs.
Chippendale intended his book as a catalogue where his wealthy clients could choose their preferred design elements from the various plates of illustrations. These pieces would then be custom-made for them in his workshop, or in the workshops of other artisan cabinetmakers.
Versatility was a hallmark of the firm of Thomas Chippendale. Not only was he a cabinetmaker, but he also functioned as an interior designer. Chippendale designed wallpaper, carpets, fire grates, decorative objects and complete room layouts. He rented furniture and did repairs. He even directed and furnished funerals for his clients.
Thomas Chippendale advised his clients on all manner of decor including the paint colors. His firm acted like a modern interior design firm coordinating with other specialists. Fully decorated rooms as well as entire houses were supplied. He furnished not only elegant state apartments, but servant’s quarters and offices were given his creative touch.
Chippendale used only the finest mahogany from the West Indies. He always used solid wood rather than employing veneers. The richest, most luxurious brocades, velvets and damasks were applied on upholstered pieces. A number of stately homes in England have been identified where Chippendale’s designs and furniture constructed in his workrooms are on view.
American cabinetmakers of the 18th Century were well-aware of Thomas Chippendale’s Director. The illustrated engravings inspired much of the best work done in the American Colonies. Newport, Boston, New York and Philadelphia were the predominant centers for craftsmen of Chippendale furniture.
There was usually a lag time of about 20 years between what was fashionable in Europe and when it appeared in America. Marvin D. Schwartz states in his book Chairs, Tables, Sofas and Beds: “The claw-and-ball foot was considered too old-fashioned to be included in Chippendale’s design illustrations, but it was a popular feature in American designs.”
Cabinetmakers adapted designs from popular Chinese imports with imaginative interpretations. The claw-and-ball foot was carved to represent a bird’s claw holding a ball. It was based on an image of a Chinese dragon’s claw holding a crystal jewel.
Queen Anne and Chippendale styles share many of the Rococo elements such as the Cabriole leg, so it can be difficult to distinguish between them. According to Marvin Schwartz: “American Chippendale furniture, whether simple or elaborate, was much lighter in its proportions than Queen Anne designs. Forms did not change much but became more ornamental.”
Thomas Chippendale adapted and blended earlier furniture styles, designs and decorative elements. The Chippendale style was dominant in American furniture until 1780-1785.
18th Century Chippendale furniture, particularly designs by renowned American cabinetmakers, commands very high prices. According to John Nye, Director of the American Furniture Department at Sotheby’s, New York: “…today’s collectors need to be cautious of any piece of Chippendale furniture that doesn’t have a four to seven figure price tag, especially for pieces made in Philadelphia. If it’s not appropriately priced, the dealer knows it’s not 18th Century.”
At auction, American Chippendale often brings higher prices than its English counterpart. As Schwartz states: “American Chippendale furniture was consistent and elegant—not merely a provincial adaptation of its English namesake.”
Original 18th Century antiques in fine condition are rare and usually not affordable for most people. For those who appreciate the Chippendale style, later reproductions of 1876, referred to as Centennial pieces, and the late Victorian era around 1900 are more readily available. These are still considered antiques, and though they may not be handcrafted with the fine details of original period furniture, they are a good and far less costly alternative for collectors who like this style.
300 years later, the Chippendale style is still an influence in modern formal furniture design. As Pamela Wiggins says in her article on Chippendale Style Furniture: “Some modern pieces completely copy older designs while others derive inspiration from this classic style melding them with modern influences.”
In honor of Thomas Chippendale’s 300th birthday, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has arranged an exhibition, Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker. It runs from May 14, 2018 to January 27, 2019 and the exhibit showcases works from the Met collection. On view are original drawings from Chippendale’s workshop, a selection of British and American furniture reflecting his designs and aesthetic, and Revival pieces of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well. One of the highlights of the exhibit is the Chippendale-inspired chair designed in 1984 by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Information about the exhibit and ticket purchasing can be found on the Met website.
In England, through December 28, 2018, institutions and historic houses have joined together to create programs of exhibitions, events and tours to celebrate Thomas Chippendale’s Tercentenary. This provides a wonderful opportunity to see Chippendale’s furniture and designs in their original settings in these stately and aristocratic homes. Information about this wide-ranging presentation can be found on the website www.chippendale300.uk.co.
If you plan to be in New York or England this fall, take advantage of these exceptional events. After all, how often do you get to celebrate a 300th birthday in such elegant surroundings.
English Furniture From Gothic to Sheraton, Herbert Cescinsky,
Bonanza Books, New York, 1968
Field Guide to American Antique Furniture, Joseph T. Butler
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1985
American Chairs. Queen Anne and Chippendale, John T. Kirk
Alfred Knopf. New York, 1972
Flashback: Chippendale Designs as Reflected in English and American Furniture, Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee, Reprint of Article Published in the June 1941 Issue of the American Collector (1933-1943), Collectors Weekly. April 22, 2009
Chippendale: The Royalty of Antique Furniture, Bob Bowers
The Antiques Almanac. 2018
Online Resource for Information about Antiques and Collectibles for Dealers and Collectors. www.theantiquealmanac.com
Chippendale Style Furniture, Learn How to Identify a Popular Period Style
Pamela Wiggins. December 28, 2017, www.thesprucecrafts.com
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. May 14, 2018–January 27, 2019
Programs of Exhibitions and Events to Celebrate Thomas Chippendale’s Tercentenary. February-December 2018