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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Old Chairs In Modern Houses
(Part 3 Of 3)

It is only fair to say, however, that Chippendale himself was hardly to blame for this fault, as his personal productions were exceedingly fine in workmanship, and nearly always of beautiful proportions. He published three books of designs that were bought by the trade, who copied them with greater or less success. It is safe to say that ninety-nine out of one hundred so-called Chippendale chairs to be found to-day were not made by him. Most of them came from cabinet shops in various parts of England, and Chippendale himself does not deserve the blame for their mistakes in carrying out his designs. It is always safer to class chairs of this style "of the Chippendale period," unless proof of their authenticity is indisputable.

When all is said, however, the modern American householder can find nothing better for home furnishing than the best of the Georgian work. Georgian chairs are not out of place in the drawing-room, music-room, parlor, or hall, Sheraton chairs being often delicate enough for either drawing-room or boudoir, but the best Chippendale and Heppelwhite chairs are superbly adapted to the uses of the modern dining-room, where the other furniture is reasonably contemporaneous in style. Furthermore, the work of the Georgian cabinet-makers was honest in construction, and the chairs are fairly comfortable, especially the Heppelwhite and Adam armchairs and most of the Chippendales.

Thomas Chippendale published his first book of designs in 1753, and his work held first place in popular esteem for thirty years or more thereafter. His construction was generally solid and strong, and he made use of a rich, dark mahogany. His chairs were generally beautified by fine carving, but he used no inlay, except on very rare occasions on specialorder work; that came later. His first chairs were Dutch in type-a direct development of the Queen Anne and early Georgian styles. He used the cabriole leg, perfecting its curve. Sometimes he used the Dutch foot, but more often the ball and claw. His chair seats were broad and flat, and the arms of his armchairs exquisitely curved. When he had perfected this Dutch type he produced many chairs that are perfect in their proportions, and a genuine pleasure to the eye. In his chair-backs he broke away from the purely Dutch type, in which the sides and top join each other in unbroken curves that make them look like one piece. With few exceptions his uprights join the top at an angle, and the top piece is usually bow-shaped, or a combination of curves, and nearly horizontal, the ends frequently curving slightly upward. He used the central splat, carved and pierced, and his backs are usually slightly wider at the top than at the bottom.

Chippendale next adopted Louis XV details, particularly in his splats, and produced what is known as the ribbon-back chair. These splats are often beautifully and intricately carved and pierced. His most famous chairs in Louis XV style were upholstered armchairs, quite like the regular French chairs of that period. The legs terminated in French scroll feet.

A third type is the ladder-back chair, probably suggested by the old slat-backs. In these, three or four or five horizontal cross-pieces appear in the back in place of the splat. They are usually curved or bow-shaped, like the top.

In his later years Chippendale adopted Gothic and Chinese features, the latter having been made popular by Sir Robert Chambers. The legs became square, straight, and solid, even while the Dutch and French features remained in the -backs, and finally the Gothic and Chinese details became sadly mixed with the rest, ungraceful, square Chinese details predominating.

Chippendale began to lose his hold on popular taste, and other cabinet-makers sprang up, both imitators and rivals in style. Ince and Mayhew were designing good chairs in 1765, Robert Manwaring in 1765, and Robert and James Adam in 1773. The latter, who were architects and not cabinet-makers, designed some noteworthy Classic designs, and later painted and inlaid chairs with straight, slender legs and oval backs, often confused with Heppelwhite's work.

About the time of the American Revolution, or later, several styles of chairs were produced which form a sort of transition between Chippendale and Heppelwhite, though most of them are inferior in grace of design. In some of them the Dutch back was partially reverted to, with the uprights and top joining in an unbroken line. Mahogany and beech were the woods most commonly used.

By 1789 Chippendale had gone out of fashion and Heppelwhite reigned in his stead. Heppelwhite's work is generally lighter than Chippendale's, and he used both carving and inlay. His chair-backs were oval, heart- or shield-shaped, chiefly the last, and his chair-legs were straight and usually square and tapering, often ending in a spade foot. Ornamental forms employed by him were the urn, husk, ear of wheat, and prince's feathers. Occasionally he, like the brothers Adam, made use of painted satinwood as well as mahogany.

Sheraton followed close upon the heels of Heppelwhite. His construction was delicate but strong, his chair-backs being really firmer than those of Heppelwhite, as a rule. They are generally rectangular in shape, with the top sometimes curved but usually straight, with a section in the middle often slightly higher than the rest. In the backs are often four to seven slender uprights and sometimes diagonal pieces, but never a splat. The inside uprights join a cross-piece at the bottom, but almost never join the seat. Most of Sheraton's lines were straight. His legs were slender and tapering, sometimes square and sometimes round. The reeded legs are more often found on his sideboards than on his chairs. The arms of his armchairs start high on the back, helping to strengthen it. Sheraton made use of satinwood, tulip-wood, rosewood, apple-wood, and occasionally mahogany, and his marquetry was often very fine. Sheraton chairs are less common than those of Heppelwhite or Chippendale, and good ones are very highly prized.

The period of the Empire in France was from 1804 to 1814, but its influence lasted until 1830. Some of the French Empire chairs reached this country with other Empire furniture. They were chiefly mahogany, sometimes with gilt mounts and highly polished. Some of them were both graceful and comfortable, and well suited to modern drawingrooms and music-rooms, but more often they were heavy, stiff, and extreme in style.

Sheraton lived long enough for his late style to be influenced by the Empire, but it was the American cabinet-makers of the early nineteenth century whose work shows the effects of Empire fashions most noticeably. The rolling back, continuous curves in sides and legs, lyre-shaped splats, and Napoleonic details in the carving are the principal Empire features found in these American chairs. Some of them are solid mahogany, some rosewood, and some painted, but a large proportion of them are of mahogany veneer, for the mahogany forests had been robbed of their finest trees and the wood was becoming rarer and more valuable. Up to about 1840 these were grandmother's best parlor chairs.

Another type of early nineteenth-century American chair is more or less nondescript, showing some of the Empire feeling, with a strong mixture of Dutch, while the pre-Chippendale solid splat again appears. These are often veneered with a lightbrown mahogany, and were grandmother's diningchairs.

These nineteenth-century chairs are interesting in many ways, but they can hardly be classed as antiques, and for use in modern houses there are few places where they seem to fit in. Certainly they are inferior to many of the earlier types in almost every respect.

This covers in a brief way the most important types of old chairs commonly found in this country, dating from 1600 to 1840. Some are better than others for modern furnishing, but their market value is not always governed by their usefulness. An idea of these values may be gained from the captions with the pictures illustrating this chapter. Any general statement regarding prices and values would be likely to be misleading. The Georgian chairs command the highest prices, while some of the best of the cottage chairs may be picked up for a song. A thousand dollars would be a reasonable price for a set of six genuine Chippendales, while you may be able to get a good slat-back of much earlier date for seventy-five cents at a country auction.

Because the Georgian chairs bring the highest prices, they offer the greatest temptation to the faker and the counterfeiter, and the shops are full of spurious Chippendales and Heppelwhites. So be wary when you buy. I shall treat the subject of faking more in detail in a later chapter. Get an expert to advise you, if possible. But when it comes to picking out the individual chair, choose for yourself, and get, above all things, a chair you can live with.

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