The making of a master furniture designer
erism. It is home to the Trust’s greatest collection of Chippendale interiors and furniture, as well as an extensive archive of correspondence between him and his clients, the Winn family.
Chippendale created a world of interiors for the Winns at Nostell between 1766 and 1785. It was composed not only of individual pieces, such as a gentleman’s mahogany writing and shaving desk, and even a recognisably Chippendale high chair, but whole suites of rooms, most notably the state apartment, a series of chinoiserie rooms which would have been the height of chic at the time.
“Rowland Winn was looking to enhance the family status and his own political standing, and climb the echelons of aristocracy,” says McCormack. “He needed a house equal to his ambitions.”
To create this vision, Chippendale worked alongside Robert Adam, then a young, up-and-coming architect in the neoclassical style. How an ordinary cabinet maker came to be in such a position has been the stuff of myth. But, says McCormack, it was some shrewd marketing that established him as a name to hire.
He moved from York to London without money or influential contacts in the 1740s, when it was the centre of high-end design and fashion, and later he published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director.
“It was really the first comprehen- sive book of furniture designs,” adds McCormack. “He discovered that he could draw beautifully. In the days before computer-aided design, being able to draw well was pivotal to designing beautiful things.”
Far from working alone, Chippendale would have employed between 20 and 30 artisans through his design house, subcontracting different skills as and when he needed them. One of the key things he was trying to do was keep ahead of style and fashion, and he would have been able to provide clients with any number of items in different aesthetics; gothic, rococo, neoclassical.
When Winn engaged the services of Chippendale he wasn’t simply ordering high-end furniture (the library desk cost £72, and a reproduction today would set you back £20,000). He was securing the services of an interior designer, including sourcing items such as a chopping block for the kitchen and a mangle. If Chippendale, who died in relative obscurity in 1779, was not your classic rags-to-riches success, then the reason is to be found at Nostell in the archive of letters and bills.
“It is a soap opera with Chippendale over-promising and under-delivering,” explains McCormack. The company “had a network of subcontractors, and what we see is a complex modern business model, which is bread and butter to us today, without any of the modern telecommunications and logistics. Chippendale fell foul of that. He must have been knackered by the time he died, dealing with all these people”.
The relationship between Winn and Chippendale soured, as the latter pushed for payment on bills and a financially over-stretched Winn became resentful. “We’re fairly confident that Chippendale did not get paid for the majority of the goods and services that he provided at the property,” says McCormack. It wasn’t a problem for a gentleman like Robert Adam, who had money behind him and could take the hit financially. But Chippendale, who had a minority financial stake in his own business, was dependent on finance to run the company. Times were changing but social mobility remained inflexible for men of Chippendale’s class. When Winn died in 1785, the whole project ground to a halt – bills unpaid.
It is thanks to the Victorian era and the Great Exhibition of 1851 that interest in 18th century furniture resurfaced. With makers’ marks rare in furniture of the time, the Victorians frequently assumed that any decent bit of 18th century furniture in that style was by Chippendale.
Authenticity remains hotly contested today, which makes Nostell, with its archive, so important. But McCormack says Chippendale is about more than beautiful furniture.
“It’s also about how different a place from the continent Britain still is today. That consumer society, Chippendale represents that,” he says.
Nostell Priory, below; a green and gold lacquer clothes press, above
Nostell Priory’s curator, Simon McCormack; a gilt four poster bed, below