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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Mahogany And Chippendale

( Originally Published 1913 )



" They don't grow mahogany like that these days," a cabinet-maker said regretfully. " Not for love nor money you can't get it, sir."

We stood admiring the size, grain, and sheen of the panels in a book-cupboard, used for generations by a firm of family lawyers in their Georgian offices, Bedford Row. " I wonder why they can't grow wood like that nowadays ? " the cabinet-maker said. The answer is simple ; the centuries-old trees were cut down long ago, and there has not been time for others like them to grow.

It was Raleigh who brought mahogany over here first, but the real extensive importation did not begin until the year 1725 or so. Spanish walnut was ceasing to be the fashionable timber for furniture then, and the rage for the " red wood " had set in. By the hundred, British mercantile ships went off to the Spanish Main, to buccaneer for mahogany; the crews landed on the coasts of Spanish America, cut down the huge trees, sawed them into great logs, and carried the spoil away without leave or licence, not even paying for them, except in local battles and blood. By the end of the eighteenth century the great, old trees had all been cut down, and the commoner, more meagre Honduras stuff-had to come into use.

A Rough Rule.-Fine furniture under William and Mary and Anne was walnut; under the Georges and Victoria it was mahogany. by a broad generalisation we may dub fine old mahogany furniture that is decor ated by carving, " Chippendale " ; and fine old mahogany furniture that is decorated by inlaying, " Sheraton." But these names must only be used descriptively ; a collector or dealer who calls a bookcase " Chippendale " cannot imply thereby that it was made by Thomas Chippendale, or by one of his work men, in St. Martin's Lane. " Chippendale " indicates a period and its style, because Thomas Chippendale's examples and designs affected his competitors and the subsequent cabinet-makers in their work, profoundly. That, too, was the case with the designs of Thomas Sheraton. You will be lucky, indeed, if you come upon a piece of Chippendale's own work; if you do, you will know it by the reticent decoration and fine balance of its design. But you will easily come upon pieces of " Chippendale period," and Chippendale worked and designed in rose-wood, and in soft woods lacquered, as well as in mahogany.

Chippendale's Styles and. Examples.-A recent classification assigns to Thomas Chippendale three differing styles, but there were more than three, and we can adopt a more precise classification.

He modified Queen Anne style furniture into what we may conveniently call Queen Anne Chippendalethe cabriole legs (something like a goat's, with carving above the knee in place of the shaggy hair), the clawand-ball foot, the clubbed foot, and the curving, solid splat.

Then came the open-work splat and the ribbon-like decoyation-adapted from the French.

Then there was the Chippendale Chinese style, hanging bookshelves, cabinets, and mirrors crowned with pagoda-like ornaments, Oriental birds, and dragons copied from porcelain, all carved in wood, and often gilded.

There was also the Chippendale Roman-brokenarch pediments with small urns in between, or places for busts, mahogany adaptations from stone pedestals and Roman altars, with hollow urns (to contain knives and forks) standing upon them.

Fifthly, we must recognise the Chippendale Gothic, due, no doubt, to the influence of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill-chair-backs badly imitating in mahogany the mullions and tracery of Gothic windows.

Happily, Chippendale's designs for his Chinese and Gothic monstrosities in furniture can seldom have been executed; at least, you seldom see any of them now. They must have been particularly costly to carry out at the time, and nobody seems to have found it worth while to forge them.

The Interplay.-And yet the " Chinese " influence, applied to details only, resulted in some of the pleasantest features of " Chippendale." A table, for instance, with a fretwork rail edging it, and with open fret worked legs; the fret is a Chinese fret, often. At the place where the front legs of a chair join the frame of the seat the angles are broken by open-work, and it is often Chinese open-work. The ornament of fretwork along the top of a bookcase or secretaire; ; it is often Chinese openwork.

And as for the Gothic, the raised lines, something like inlay inverted, which adorn an oblong cupboard door, were meant to resemble the tracery of a severe Gothic window; while the " mullions " or " tracery " which contain the panes of a Chippendale bookcase were meant to resemble both Gothic windows and Chinese lattices. When the panes were plain in form, the icicle-like drip of mahogany from above them, sometimes seen, was Chinese in origin.It is, of course, the ribbon-back chairs which are the most sought after kind of " Chippendale."



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