|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Shearton, Adam And Other Georgian Types
( Originally Published 1920 )
At no place in the development of the English people is the democratic idea for which the Magna Charta stood more clearly demonstrated than in the furniture and furnishing ideas of the period known as the Georgian. The Queen Anne style lasted through the reign of George I and nearly through that of George II. At this time the Louis XV period was at its best in France. A more or less close intimacy between France and England had brought many English people of the upper classes into contact with the French salon. The gorgeous period of Louis XIV had been admired and copied in a limited way by some of the English cabinet makers, and many of them had studied at close range both the Louis XIV and Louis XV styles.
The domestic tendencies of the court of Queen Anne had established a prototype in England of the French salon. It was the custom of court ladies and others to meet together for embroidery and conversation, though their topics were, perhaps, less weighty or witty than those discussed in the French salon. The democratic sentiment in religion and in social practice had so permeated the core of English life that an exodus to Holland and to the united colonies had been going on for over a century.
Liberty of thought in this country and in England had a wonderful effect upon the demands, and therefore upon the creations, in the applied art field of the English people. As men began to think for themselves they began to do for themselves. They were no longer willing to allow the royal will to decide the shape of a chair or how many a man should have and how he should use them after he owned them. Each man conceived, by an apparently simultaneous impulse, the idea that the house was the expression of the individual who lived in it and that each person had not only the right to a special design, but was in duty bound to attempt to have something made which expressed his peculiar idea of what that object should be.
One of the first persons to sense this situation and act upon it was one Thomas Chippendale by name, whose influence between 1'750 and 1800 can scarcely be estimated. So important has he become in the study of late English furniture that many believe everything that was designed between these dates was done by Chippendale or under his direction. Not only is this true, but one frequently meets people who confuse the Colonial types of the time with the Chippendale style, and not a few persist in confusing Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Mayhew and others with Chippendale.
Too much cannot be said in commendation of the great pioneer who defied tradition, took away from royalty and the court the right to dictate styles, and freed man to express himself in any way he saw fit, Yet to give him all the glory, or to ascribe to him all the niceties which were brought out as a result of his conception, is to overrate what he did and to underrate the influence and work of other men as worthy of consideration as he.
Of the early life of this man little is known. In 1754 he brought out a book called "The Gentleman's and Cabinet Maker's Director." This book has been considered a well-spring for all Georgian styles, but its value lies in the clear way in which it shows the right of the individual to dictate his own style.
Chippendale studied and observed the French styles. So taken was he with certain phases of these styles that one part of his work may be said to be an adaptation of the French to individual needs. An interesting story is told of what he did. Conceiving the idea that in place of the French salon an English tea shop and furniture shop could be combined, he established such an institution under his own roof. To this shop he invited not only his friends, but the wealthy people of London, as his guests for tea. While drinking tea, sitting upon a Chippendale model and viewing other examples of his work in the room, his guests proved an easy prey to his commercial scheme for showing furniture as it relates to the home. His success was pronounced and people flocked to the Chippendale shop to view, to purchase regardless of cost, and to order new articles of furniture which should be individual and made to express the personality of the owner.
This indeed was a strange departure in cabinetmaking. These French Chippendale pieces will not be described here, but they are the forerunners of the individual styles in England and in the United States.
Sometimes Chippendale fell under other influences than those of France. He borrowed from the Gothic and attempted to create dining-room and drawing-room chairs with Gothic motif s, but these were in commercial early Georgian style. The result was inartistic and a failure.
Sir William Chambers had opened up the wealth of artistic material in China, and had brought back many examples of textiles, pottery, carved wood, etc., from the limitless supply of the Chinese Empire. Chippendale, shrewd as usual, fastened upon the Chinese lattice and other Chinese motifs, and used them with considerable facility in the expression of a new ChineseChippendale style. These are interesting, sometimes picturesque, frequently grotesque, while they present no end of chance for criticism as to their proportion and practicability.
This is true especially of the chairs which he made. Mahogany was the wood of woods for Chippendale. His style, marking as it does the first of the individual styles, developed certain ideas which were originated during the Queen Anne period. He widened the seats of the chairs, accommodated the back more perfectly to the human figure and standardized the height of the seat from the floor. He also worked out more carefully the function of a sideboard, a bookcase, a secretary and a writing table. He sought by every known means to impress the idea of individualism upon his clients, and to furnish as many kinds and types of useful things as human ingenuity could devise. In all this he was eminently successful.
The other element which all good furniture must have was frequently either missing or so slightly present that its detection is impossible. I refer to the quality of subtle refinement and aesthetically significant form. While some Chippendale pieces present a fine sense of proportion and a marvellous skill in technique, the general effect of the Chippendale furniture, with some exceptions, is heavy, frequently clumsy, lacking in grace, mixed in motif and altogether devoid of the charm of the later individual styles.
To Chippendale, then, we accord the glory of being a pioneer in establishing individual style in furniture and furnishing. To him also may be given the praise that rightfully belongs to him who is not afraid to take an idea from any place or any time and attempt to carry it out under modern conditions. To give him, however, full credit for all things Georgian and all things Colonial, or to dub him a great artist craftsman, is allowing him the qualities which properly belong to the two men who were associated with him in his later years.
The transition from the style called Chippendale to that of the style known as Hepplewhite, or to give the full title, of Messrs. A. Hepplewhite & Company, presents one of the most difficult problems in the Georgian styles. Perhaps nowhere in the development of English furniture was there a more marked change than in that made by these two men, who were practically contemporaneous. Notwithstanding the fact that Chippendale's furniture was lighter and more graceful, of a wider range and more usable than the earlier styles, he was unable to free himself from the weight of sturdy heaviness and formal arrangement which seems typical of the national temperament up to this time.
Wealth, dignity and usefulness had been the vogue in the days of Queen Anne. A heavy ornamental display of some graceful objects was the result of this period. Till the last days of Queen Anne everything light, flippant, or buoyant was rigidly excluded, and these qualities appeared only rarely in the work of Chippendale.
The first real exponent of delicacy in English styles, of a subtle refinement in proportion and arrangement, was Hepplewhite, and to him this should be accredited. The home up to this time had a certain severity and heaviness in its treatment. The furniture consisted only of what was necessary to modern usage, but Hepplewhite early in his career introduced a different idea' and brought into English furniture and English furnishing an entirely new and very important element.' Hepplewhite's favourite maxim was "unite elegance with utility and blend the useful with the agreeable." This is the key to all that Hepplewhite did.
We have seen that Chippendale perpetrated fearful atrocities and caricatures on the styles of Louis XIV and XV and of the Chinese and Gothic periods. These in no way expressed the idea for which they orig inally stood. With Hepplewhite an entirely different view obtained. His wife published his book entitled "The Cabinet Maker's and Upholsterer's Guide, or Repository of Designs for Every Article of Household Furniture in the Newest and Most Approved Taste."
From the title of this book may be gleaned something of what was the ideal of A. Hepplewhite & Company.
With Chippendale it was utility and commercial advantage. With Hepplewhite it was the use to which an article must be put, united with the aesthetic quality which is the expression of perfect taste.
Granting these premises, use and beauty, each equally important, you have the key to the great change which Hepplewhite wrought in the idea of individualizing the house. His was the artistic and refining influence which is the fruitful result of the union of the two necessary elements which make a useful object of any considerable art value, namely, the union of utility and elegance, or the fusion of function and beauty into one naturally expressive whole.
To be sure, it is quite impossible for a man with such aims to realize in the fullest sense his ideal. Hampered by the work of inferiors, followers of Chippendale, limited by a smaller clientele at first among a people quite blinded by the new idea of individual styles, it took time and patience to work out in a positive way his own theories. The fruits of his work are seen in the greatly reduced scale of all articles which he designed. Perhaps some one will say these are too small, they look insecure, are not heavy enough for practical purposes. This may be true. In many instances it is true, but they are practical in expressing what they intended to express and are successful in uniting utility and beauty in the field in which they are usable at all. Not all Hepplewhite furniture is good in all places, but nearly all Hepplewhite furniture expresses the two elements which all furniture should express.
As has been said, it is not the aim of this discussion to illustrate the distinguishing characteristics of every style and period, but to awaken the reader to a sense of quality in things, and then to lead him to investigate the things or to read books in which these things are explained, and to find for himself the qualities for which they stand. That is the way to grow in knowledge of what is good and right, not only in furniture, but in any art object.
The period of Hepplewhite, or the work of Hepplewhite as I shall call it, while contemporary with the last days of Chippendale, may be called a second step in the evolution of the individual style. Since he was the pioneer in standardizing beauty, refinement and charm, it marks quite as important an epoch as that in which Chippendale departed from the monarchic idea.
The furniture, the textiles, and other art objects were delicate and refined in scale. Side pieces were done in plain wood not much ornamented, chairs were delicate in line not greatly ornamented excepting in the backs, where Hepplewhite seems to have let his desire for free play of line run an absolute riot.
The third very pronounced influence on this period is shown in the work of Sheraton, who was born in 1751, about the time that Chippendale published his famous book. Born of obscure parents, in dire poverty, gentle, retiring and contemplative, Sheraton was in direct contrast to the commercially social Chippendale and the polished gentleman Hepplewhite. Very early he showed an intense admiration for the most refined classic things in the period of Louis XVI. Chippendale, as has been said, took naturally to the period of Louis XIV and the heavier, more picturesque style of Louis XV. Hepplewhite saw, appreciated and developed the delicacies, subtleties and refinements of Louis XV. Temperance, restraint, simplicity and consistencythese were the things Sheraton saw in the foreign styles and these were the things he desired to express in his own work. Somewhat influenced, no doubt, by Hepplewhite and his work, Sheraton set about to eliminate something of the overworked detail of the Hepplewhite idea, and to express in their simplest terms the same qualities and refinement with a more classic feeling as the dominating idea.
Particularly in pieces such as cabinets, sideboards, dressers, tables, etc., Sheraton was supreme. Delicate, refined and splendidly constructed, they were decorated in perfect structural harmony by a fine and beautiful inlay of lighter wood. These pieces expressed in English terms the quiet, refined dignity that is found so characteristic of the plainest and most classic of the same objects in the period of Louis XVI. When these pieces or the counterparts of them found their way to the United States they did much to modify the belief already strongly entrenched here, that the heavier Queen Anne or the more elaborate Chippendale were the climaxes of beauty in furniture forms.
The chairs of Sheraton appear to have been less in harmony with his idea than his other articles of furniture. Perhaps this is because chair backs seem to have been the playground for both Sheraton and Hepplewhite. Consistent to a degree in, some things, they apparently considered the backs of chairs safe places in which to experiment with apparently impossible motifs worked out in incongruous ways. There are, however, some rectangular backs with simple feeling, beautiful in proportion and charming in spirit, as are also the side pieces to which they naturally belong.
The most casual study of these things will show that in all Sheraton did there was everything to praise and little to criticise unfavourably. Toward the end of his career, when a broken old man, worn out in mind and body, he published some designs which show that his original idea had become well-nigh lost in the trend of the times. They were caricatures of the Empire in France. Though very little made up as designs, they have misled many into believing Sheraton stood for ideas which really were strictly opposed to all that the man worked for during the best part of his life.
Sheraton believed and proved that designing household furnishing was an art, one which every one could not with success take up as a means of livelihood. He understood that a gift for proportion as well as special training was essential, and he stood firmly for good taste and sound workmanship. But even these did not satisfy him. He determined to master the art of drawing and the principles of design and colour; in short, to become acquainted with the laws which governed the expression of his ideas in material form. This he held to be essential. In this, then, Sheraton added some new things to the already clearly defined tendencies of the Georgian times.
The discussion of individual styles may not be closed without a word in regard to the Adam brothers. The older of the two, Robert Adam, was born in 1728, and in 1768 he was appointed architect to the king. He died in 1792. These dates are given that one may clearly associate the Adam brothers with the period when Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton were all at work in the cabinetmakers' field.
In truth the Adam brothers were not cabinetmakers, but architects, exterior and interior. To us their chief value lies in what they did for interior walls, ceilings, floors and chimney pieces, which brought back the interior of the room to the background idea. In this the Adam brothers performed a lasting service in the development of the modern house. Influenced greatly by the classic forms, particularly by the GreecoRoman at Pompeii, they evolved a light and dainty classic style, a delicate rendition sometimes verging on the cold, sometimes even on the pretty, and withal, a new note in a development of the Georgian interior.
As far as their influence was felt on furniture and decorative objects it was not for improvement. One can dismiss for the present this phase from the category of Georgian furniture styles. Let us not fail, however, to appreciate the advantage of the softer and less ornamented wall surface, the simpler and more structurally panelled arrangement, the delicate and refined treatment of doorways, windows and chimney pieces, lest we overlook one of the very potent factors in the movement which has such a radical bearing upon our modern problem.