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Furniture And Its Background - Part 3

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( Originally Published 1963 )



Chippendale's designs fall into four general styles. One, using such motifs as lions, masques, eggs, and darts, might be called English. For a time, too, many of Chippendale's pieces borrowed from the rococo appearance of French Louis XV furniture and were really an embellishment of the simpler Queen Anne style by means of elaborate lines and touches. There were also Chippendale pieces that reflected the Chinese, with pagoda motifs, bamboo turnings, the claw-and-ball foot, carved latticework, and considerable lacquering. Others showed the Gothic influence, which was distinguished by pointed arches, quatrefoils, and the fretwork leg.

Carving, which was excellent-deep and sharp-was the chief decorative technique. It was not limited to shell carving but extended to elaborate scrolls, foliage, and gadroons. Gilding, some veneer, and fretwork galleries around small tables and the tops of cabinet pieces were other forms of decoration.

Under Thomas Chippendale's guidance, bedsteads became less pretentious although still handsome. This was the age of the four-post bed, and in this country at least the hangings were not quite so all-enveloping. A short valance began to replace floor-length draperies. Sometimes there was a curtain across the back of the bed and perhaps side curtains at the two rear posts. These beds became known as tester or canopy beds. Sometimes a headboard came into sight.

Chippendale secretaries and desks were handsome. The slant-top desk was made with straight or serpentine front. These as well as other case pieces were as likely to have square bracket feet as claw-and-ball feet. Pitch pediments replaced the flat tops on earlier pieces. These pediments often were elaborately scrolled, as in the bonnet top, or had framed fretwork.

Between 1760 and 1790 in this country, fine cabinetmakers produced kneehole desks and secretaries as well as other case pieces that were truly Chippendale yet had one characteristic that no Chippendale furniture made in England ever had. These were the block fronts, so called because the straight line was broken by large raised panels or blocks rising the full height of the piece. Many of these blocks terminated in a large carved shell the width of the projecting block.

Highboys and corner cupboards as made in this country between 1760 and 1790 established an American Chippendale style. Lowboys were handsome too, but seem not to have been made in equal quantity. At about this time, drawers instead of cupboards were made for the lower section of a cupboard, and the upper section had glass doors. Corner cupboards were made in great quantity here until about 1840.

Dining tables followed the style of those already in use, namely either oval or rectangular drop-leaf. Now they were likely to have cabriole legs ending in claw-and-ball feet. In addition, elaborate rectangular tables with tops of wood or marble and four to six legs also appeared in dining rooms. These were serving tables, for there were no sideboards. Card tables became more common and, if possible, even more handsome when made of mahogany or cherry with Chippendale details. Tea tables were made in variety. The pedestal or tripod table was likely to be more elaborate, often with carving on the legs and with a molded edge. When the molding was scrolled, the piece was called a piecrust table.

The Pembroke table was first designed by Chippendale. This was an individual style of drop-leaf with an oblong or rectangular fixed center piece with a drawer beneath, and two comparatively narrow drop leaves, either squared or shaped. Still another innovation in small tables on which china was displayed was the fretwork gallery.

Side chairs and armchairs were Chippendale's masterpieces. No one ever did so many things to make them look different. Unbelievable versatility distinguished the backs, which always had a distinctive pattern, and both the vertical-splat back and the ladder back (horizontal splats) came in for new treatment. Some of his elegantly carved ladder-backs are called ribbon-backs. Pierced splats were sometimes carved to produce a distinctly Gothic impression of arches and pillars; others were so intricately carved as to be almost lacy-looking. Uprights were flat, molded, fluted, or carved. The top rail or crest was scrolled and came to points or "ears" at the corners.

Legs of these chairs were cabriole, straight, or fretted. Cabriole legs were at the front; square, outward slanting legs at the rear. Claw-and-ball feet were his great favorite, but he also made a leaf-carved foot. Stretchers disappeared, or if they were used, were recessed. Square seats and rectilinear backs were also Chippendale characteristics.

All Chippendale furniture had a solidity that came from careful fitting and joining. However, decorative details kept it from looking heavy.

The Adam brothers (1765-95) brought a return to the classic lines and classic motifs of Greece and Italy. Robert Adam, the eldest of the four brothers, was primarily an architect. He believed that architecture should be firmly linked with the furniture and decoration of a building, and so it was natural that he design the furniture cabinetmakers made for his buildings. Adam interiors were light, delicate, and graceful, with refined and finished detail. So also was the furniture. The wreath, fan, and honeysuckle, and urns and columns were employed as ornamentation; all were handled with delicate grace. Adam is best remembered in this country for mantels rather than furniture.

In his respect for and handling of classic details, Adam influenced two other great furniture designers-George Hepplewhite (1780-1800) and Thomas Sheraton (1790-1810). Both men published books of designs for their light and delicate-looking yet sturdy pieces. Their ascendency coincided with that of the new United States, where cabinetmakers adapted their ideas with evident enthusiasm.

Hepplewhite created his own hallmarks and contributed certain new pieces to the many homes here that now were quite luxuriously furnished. So did Sheraton. Both designers worked with mahogany, but exotic woods such as satinwood and rosewood appealed to them. Both favored inlay and veneers for decoration. Hepplewhite particularly made exceptional use of inlay. The latter was so firmly applied that it is not unusual to find pieces made about 1800 with little or no inlay missing. By the same token, veneer was so thick that it was slow to blister or crack.

However distinct were certain characteristics-and however individual the contributions-of each of these lateeighteenth-century designers, their styles tended to blend together. Often, details from the designs of both were combined in one piece in America.

Contributing to the grace of Hepplewhite furniture were the square, tapering legs. The shield-shaped back on chairs was one of his trademarks; in some cases, the back was nearly heartshaped. The graceful oval was almost as typical a Hepplewhite characteristic. Card tables, for example, which heretofore had been square, now became oval. The drop-leaf table not only was longer but also opened to an oval shape. The half-round table, which had been introduced years before, became a work of art. Serpentine fronts were typical on tables and case pieces.

Richly colored mahogany pieces in the Hepplewhite manner were set off with inlay of the lighter-colored satinwood. Thin lines on either side of the square legs or bordering a table were sometimes accented by a simple bellflower motif. Hepplewhite used a good deal of veneer too. With Sheraton, the carving of mahogany replaced inlay.

Sheraton's designs leaned more toward the rectilinear without losing any delicacy. The backs of his chairs, though no higher than Chippendale's, were rectangular with a carved splat that showed a great deal of openwork or three or four carved columns. A later chair was equally distinctive, for it Had a wide top rail and one wide, carved horizontal splat. This sort of chair had what are called saber legs, that is, the front ones flare forward, the rear ones backward. A lyre or drapery-on chairs made in this country, an eagle-frequently was the carved motif.

The pedestals of Sheraton tables were often carved to a lyre or vase shape. Legs were likely to be turned and reeded, and on case pieces half-round pilasters were reeded, or carved in narrow, rounded, vertical and parallel lines, as decoration.

The days of Hepplewhite and Sheraton brought to both England and the United States not only the large diningroom table, usually oval with drop leaves, but also the first sideboards. Sideboards so long that they required eight legs often displayed a pair of carved wood urns. These were for storing the silver tableware when not in use. A knife box, also for silver storage, had a top or lid with a slanting front. Urns and knife boxes were generally made of mahogany. The urns were so difficult to carve that only the finest craftsmen could attempt them, and fewer were made in this country than in England.



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