BBC Antiques Roadshow expert Marc Allum looks at the life and work of one of Britain’s most celebrated furniture designers
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). Arguably the most famous furniture maker in British history, his name has become synonymous with a quintessentially 18th-century English period in cabinetmaking that encompasses the rococo and the neoclassical, as well as a significant selection of gothic and oriental motifs.
The fame and subsequent popularity of Chippendale and his designs have fostered both an avid connoisseurial appreciation of his skill and a worldwide reputation that has seen his furniture constantly reinvented and copied over the intervening centuries. Indeed, ‘Chippendale’ has become a descriptive term that is liberally applied to just about anything that resembles his work. I have on numerous occasions in my own career been heard to say the words
‘oh, that’s a Chippendale’, but quite literally in reference to the style. The urban myths that abound in the antiques trade about Chippendale also mean that there are a plethora of tales surrounding supposed finds of his furniture – particularly chairs, which are naturally worth large amounts of money. There isn’t an antiques dealer or auctioneer alive who wouldn’t like to add a ‘Chippendale’ to their list of discoveries.
Born in Otley, Yorkshire in 1718, Thomas Chippendale was the son of a joiner and subsequently worked as a journeyman cabinetmaker. He was the first cabinetmaker in history to publish a compendium of his designs, which he first produced in 1754. The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director was a remarkable publication. Not only did it provide a catalogue of designs from which his clients ➤
could choose their pieces, but it also gave other furniture makers and designers the basis on which to manufacture or work up their own variations or creations. As a result, it’s not at all unusual to see Chippendale’s designs reinvented for different markets – particularly in America, where cabinetmakers in Washington, New York and Boston eagerly traded on the fashionable popularity of his style.
At the centre of design
The mid 18th century was a highly competitive period for craftsmen like Chippendale. In 1754, when he moved his business to St Martin’s Lane in London, he was purposely positioning himself among the most important people in the business. This area of London was a centre of design and manufacturing excellence, and Chippendale was in direct competition with nearby makers such as William Ince and John Mayhew. Coincidentally, Ince was a subscriber to the first edition of Chippendale’s Director and also issued – in direct competition to this publication – The Universal System of Household Furniture.
Of course, the success of any business depends on your clients, and another reason for being so centrally placed was Chippendale’s desire to be situated close to the seats of power, influence and money. Chippendale’s reputation and success, like his competitors’, depended on commissions, and we know from scholarly research by expert Christopher Gilbert that around 26 major commissions were executed by him. These included notable houses such as Nostell Priory, Dumfries House and Harewood House.
Interestingly, it’s also important to understand that Chippendale didn’t just supply furniture. His remit was to implement a complete interior design service, and this would also include fabrics and paint colours. Where needed, he would also copy the work of other well-known designers such as his contemporary Robert Adam and, were it not for the evidence of paperwork and bills of sale, some of these idiosyncrasies would have been lost to history.
Despite his great success, Chippendale was never wholly accepted in polite society. Although his reputation preceded him professionally, he apparently treated his aristocratic clients with deference. Yet his client list reads like a who’swho of 18th-century nobility and royalty.
Harewood House collection
It is quite fitting that one of Chippendale’s most important commissions was at Harewood House, not far from his birthplace in Otley. This commission – which was worth over £10,000 – began in 1767, and would be worth well over a £1 million in today’s money. It is, therefore, more than appropriate in this 300th anniversary year since his birth, that Harewood is celebrating this most famous of English furniture makers with a number of significant events that spotlight the superlative collection of furniture and fittings that he supplied to Harewood House.
Chippendale’s remit for the house is a startling affirmation of his skill. Few stones were left unturned in his attention to the detail required to fit out and create the grandest rooms, yet he also supplied the garden benches! His use of exotic woods, silk, porcelain, glass and textiles - gilded, painted and inlaid in myriad designs - extended from more humble items to some of the most exuberant and expensive furniture ever commissioned. The state bed, supplied in 1773 for around £400, including the silk hangings, was one of the most costly productions of Chippendale’s career. Incredibly, it had languished since the 19th century in boxes, dismantled after a redesign of the room in the 1840s. It was restored in 2000 and can now be seen in its full architectural glory with its silk damask hangings recreated from a surviving fragment that was found in the bed dome. Arguably one of his most famous pieces is the Diana and Minerva commode. One of Harewood’s greatest treasures, it exemplifies a form of wealthy addiction – that is, the creation of superlative items that had no real function other than to impress. This richly decorated commode is a statement of status, prosperity and opulence. It has two roundels depicting the Roman goddesses Diana and Minerva and is decorated with exotic woods, ivory and ormolu (a gilding technique) on a satinwood ground, and cost £86 in 1773. Its current value is inestimable and, like the many other Chippendale treasures in Harewood and other great houses, it’s the contextual and documented history of his creations, and seeing them in situ, that is so important to the chronology and background of these wonderful creations. Three centuries on, there are many other Chippendalerelated anniversary events taking place across the country. Importantly, The Chippendale society, formed in 1963, will be exhibiting a collection of original drawings and documents alongside original examples of this great craftsman’s furniture – some previously unseen. The exhibition is at Leeds City Museum. In the meantime, I live in hope of discovering a true Chippendale.
Where to visit
Harewood House See a fine collection of Chippendale furniture on show – harewood.org
THE Chippendale society Find out more about the society, its events calendar for the celebrations, and its collections – thechippendalesociety.co.uk
Chippendale 300 (1718–2018) From June 2018, there will be a full programme of events to mark the 300th anniversary of Thomas Chippendale. Find a list of what’s on at chippendale300.co.uk
Visit otley for a look around his birthplace – visitotley.co.uk
nostell priory Chippendale events throughout 2018 – national-trust.org.uk/nostell-priory-and-parkland
Harewood House in yorkshire