|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In our study of styles we have now come to a place where the brook and river meet, and where the waters blend to our confusion. It is impossible to proceed further without bringing in the furniture of America. But as one object of this book is to point the way through the ages up to that absorbing subject, we enter upon the path of investigation rejoicing. The major part of our study is, in fact, only a brief tracing of furniture history from the beginning, that we may know to what traditions we owe the development that we regard as peculiarly our own, to wit, the styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and some minor men.
As England was the parent of the colonies, so is the relationship between English and American furniture. As we know, the early settlers of the North were thrifty, active people, for the most part without comfortable fortunes, yet with that self-respect that produces homes well-equipped with whatever was then considered necessary. At first the ships that brought the people brought also their furniture, scant enough in the days of the " Mayflower " and her companions on the sea. And thus we have the early chests acting the double part of trunk and furniture for the new and perilous home, and a few scattered chairs. Comparison of dates shows that at this time in the seventeenth century the Stuart or Jacobean styles were reigning in England, - that style of box-like construction and flatly carved ornamentation which is a Northern reading of Italian revived classic.
And as prettily as the parts of a puzzle fit into place, we know at once why our early colonial furniture is of oak, and why it is of a style so stupendously different from the smooth turnings and plain surfaces of the period after mahogany came into use.
It represents the remains of the Jacobean period, which adds great value to these rare pieces, for it takes us still further back into antiquity. Occasionally a piece is found which was undoubtedly made in England. Others copy closely, the difference being mainly in the quality of the oak, for the enrichment in general follows the old lines.
Then a little later those colonists who were not engaged in spirited performances with the Indians developed a certain crude originality of design in ornament, and departed from the old drawing. In one design the classic Roman guilloche is replaced by the frank spread of the sunflower grouped or single, and chests of this type are called after the valley in which they were made, - the Connecticut. In Massachusetts originated quite another design, and this was called a vine, though its resemblance to that graceful meander of Nature is difficult to trace.
It is safe to assume that the more elaborate of the Jacobean chairs were imported, the wainscot type, for instance, and those later beautiful examples carved of walnut with the Spanish foot, placed as daintily on the floor as the little hoof of a deer. But the turned work is more often than not made this side the water.
Compared with the rich examples of Queen Anne furniture and carvings seen abroad, ours are simple indeed, and whether imported or made here is not always easy to determine. They all unite, however, in being of the strong, simple variety, and appeal to us through their honest construction and effect of grace. Many of them are simple enough to have been made by those joiners who came hither for that great desideratum, permission to hold and to confess whatever opinion a man pleased, as well as a chance to live. And many pieces were made by these men, and from the native woods they found in the abundance that their descendants have ever since abused.
And after Queen Anne comes the style we call Chippendale, and that is our present topic for study, as it so closely concerns collectors and those who hold tenaciously to the one or two old pieces of furniture which inheritance has bestowed.
It would seem an absurdity to state boldly that Chippendale was a man, a furniture-maker, who secured permanent fame through a book of designs which he published in 1754. But everyone interested is not informed, as was proved lately by a Vermont gentleman who talked enthusiastically of having a fine Chippendale. All questions as to what sort of piece it was drew out but the one answer, that it was a Chippendale. A visit to the house showed it to be a sideboard, one after Hepplewhite's drawing.
Perhaps, then, there remains still some confusion as to the history and method of this famous designer and workman, and also as to the rules for identifying his models, and this shall be my excuse for entering upon them at length. It is not uncommon to hear all old mahogany alluded to loosely as Chippendale, so that it is necessary to be familiar not only with his styles, but with those which immediately follow, - the styles introduced by Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
It is not supposable that decorative or applied arts went on repeating designs without change from the advent of Dutch models until 1754, when Thomas Chippendale crystallised his patterns and his erudition in book form. A gentle insidious transition period occupied the forty years between Anne's death and the publication of this book, during which time many furniture-makers were gradually moulding the style. Perhaps it is not fair to these men to leave them out of mention.
They did almost as much to make the style under consideration as the man for whom it was named, yet his was the more brilliant talent, and his the more fashionable shop. Honour to whom honour is due is a difficult dictum to follow, and the style had to have a name, so for the sake of accuracy we may inform ourselves about these other men, and then rejoice that the name selected to cover the period is one so rare and so euphonious.
A little of the man and of his life is necessary for our full enjoyment, for after all the personal element is ever one that piques the interest. Thomas Chippendale was born in Worcester, and was bred to the trade of wood-carver, his family being engaged in that business. We have only to remember the heavy enrichment of interior decoration by Grinling Gibbons to know that there must have been many such in England at the time.
Chippendale as we know him best is master of a shop in St. Martin's Lane, London, - a prosperous tradesman, who had both a gift for his work and a nice instinct for fashion. He knew how to turn out the most acceptable furniture of the day, and knew, too, how to sell it at high price, - although canniness wedded to imagination could never have foreseen the prices that his works would bring now, when five thousand dollars is paid for a double chair, and ten thousand for a high-boy.
To please fashionable folk he must learn their pleasure, and to that end made his shop a resort of persons of leisure, a place where fops and wits, beauties and matrons were wont to assemble, it being a custom of the day thus to meet at shops, especially those which dealt in wares from the newly appreciated Fast. And so while fashionable London flirted and gossiped, exclaimed " Zounds," and " Law, Sir Peter," and generally comported itself in ways delectable, Thomas Chippendale displayed his talent and his wares and became the fashion.
His book was not by any means his initial step, his style did not spring full-armed from his brain, but resulted from long work and much experiment, and also much association with persons of distinction. It is always with half-compassion that our awe for Dr. Johnson is tempered, -be with the brusque and bumping ways of a bumblebee, he of the great mind, great body, and little manners. It is a pleasant bit of fancy to see him pause in his eccentric walks about Fleet Street and the Strand, and turn towards the shop of the popular " upholder," there to discuss the making of the new book which is now to us such a valuable possession. For it was Samuel Johnson who wrote the rare quaint preface to this great volume, that preface which abounds in phrases of infinite, though unintended humour.
Chippendale's manner of design is in three phases, and as these apply also to the other important makers of the day, they come as appropriately whether we are discussing the style Chippendale or merely the products of the one man. The most important of these phases is the French. It is more flattering to the Anglo-Saxon to assume that the harmonious grace and delicate enrichment of the time was a product original with the " tight little isle." But blind and insular indeed are those who will not see that the inspiration came directly from outside. To understand Chippendale in all the fulness of its beauty one must do ever as this great craftsman did -become saturated with the style in vogue in France when Louis XV reigned, and with him ruled the curve of the rococo, the coquillage, the rock-shell derivations. On this style Chippendale based the most exquisite of his detail.
But as no thought finds the same manifestation in one hand as in another, so Chippendale's work was not pure Louis XV, not a slavish copy, but was that graceful effort influenced by the temperament across the Channel. A certain condition of living which we like to think impossible to the Anglo-Saxon produced the style Louis Ouinze. Taken across the Channel, it must then lose its structural or moral weakness, while losing none of its exquisite charm. This is the true interpretation of Chippendale's French work and shows plainly for all to read. In the French work construction was formed of ornament; in the English work construction remained honest, and ornament was applied only to embellish. So Chippendale kept the English form and added French detail.
As it is mainly to the chair that this theory is applicable, let us examine chairs of this period as a botanist analyses a specimen of a plant family, and learn its distinctive features. For this purpose we will avoid the chairs which are but copies of the French, and take the style which is more definitely English, - the straight chairs illustrated.
First we notice wherein the back differs from the Queen Anne back. It is made graceful, even as the human figure is made graceful, by a width at the shoulders, which tapers gradually towards the waist. This general form is followed in all chairs of this class, no matter what their decorative carving. Below the seat the taper still continues to the very end of the back legs, but is done in a curve so subtle that the effect is to diminish the importance of this part, which is always uncarved. In addition to this, the back tips slightly away from the seat.
In the carved detail of the backs much play of imagination is seen, yet the character of all is similar. C scrolls abound, placed back to back or crossed or elongated, or any way which produces grace, and these are combined with sinuous slats and other curves in infinite variety. The one rule observed is to produce an effect of lightness by pierced and open carving. The ribbon-back chair, whose name describes it, is too celebrated not to mention here, but specimens are too rare to consider possible as acquisitions. Chippendale says of them in his book, in quaint conceit, " Plate XVI is three ribbon-back chairs, which, if I may speak without vanity, are the best I have ever seen (or perhaps have ever been made)." Backs of pierced horizontal slats are true Chippendale, although a departure from his usual method.
To continue with the analysis of the chair, the legs are of two varieties,-the cabriole and the straight. The ornamentation on the cabriole leg is in entire harmony with the back, and, like it, has scrolls, shells, and foliations by way of enrichment. In many cases it strongly resembles the Queen Anne, but on fine pieces it more delicately reflects the French.
Straight legs accompany the backs which we are considering, both under-framed and left un-stayed. They are unornamented as a rule, yet this is not invariably true, as we shall see.
Seats unite in being much wider in front than across the back, and this again helps to produce the desired slender waist.
So far as Chippendale's copies of the styles of Louis XV are concerned, they interest Americans as the unattainable always interests. Very little of this class of work was brought to the colonies, and we had not the native artists to copy it. It is coming to our country now as works of art, bought as other curios and bibelots are done, at immense prices by those who are desirous of collecting. But it is not associated with the early days of our people, and so, although worshipable as art, lacks the endearing quality of old association.
These French styles of Chippendale might almost have been made across the Channel, except that the French pieces were generally gilded, while the English were carved from mahogany, finished with rare perfection and left in all its native richness of colour. I speak not only of chairs but also of highboys, desks, and other case-work, especially those in which Chippendale copied the bombe form, which swells with self-importance and silently boasts the high price which it brought. Pieces like this are rare, and more than highly prized. Their ornamentation is carved in designs of leafage, shells, and frilling, entirely after the French manner, and large broken pediments are used with incongruous effect.
Chippendale's roving eye turned everywhere for ideas. He is accused of being not an originator but an adapter. In his search for novelty he hit upon the Gothic, and this is the second of his class of designs. As in the case of the French style, he merely impressed it into his service as an aid in ornamentation, but altered nothing of his general outlines, except perhaps the tops of bookcases.
We have only to remember the China craze of the day to know that Chippendale could not well avoid it. Indeed, he found it already influencing French artists while he was studying them, altering their drawing and making yet more fantastic their erratic lines. Chinese pagodas, bridges, landscapes, were taken as an inspiration and as an excuse for what looks to us now like bad taste.
But among the highly-prized importations were grills or lattice work in an unending variety of line, and from these Chippendale absorbed an idea productive of beauty. It is shown in chairs by an ornamentation on the legs which is harmoniously combined with French backs. This is always applied to straight legs. The lattice often forms the entire back of the chair, and in such cases the outline of the back is much squarer than usual.
This lattice was sawn out from sheets of wood and secured by pins and glue onto the surface of the piece to be decorated, which was a cheaper device than carving. Carvers, however, only received five shillings a day for expert services.
The rare bookcases that give a glow of satisfaction to owners and beholders would never have been so beautiful but for Chippendale's use of Chinese lattice. He saw at once its beauty when applied to glass, and used it freely. The distinguishing mark of this kind of his work is its lack of curves.
The abundant inspiration of Chinese art caused Chippendale to say of the Chinese manner, " I think it the most useful of any other "; but when it runs to stalagmites which drip disintegratingly from rococo scrolls, it speaks of weakness, so to our eye the daintily intricate lattice is the best.
The ball-and-claw foot, so agreeably familiar in furniture of the latter half of the eighteenth century, is it not directly traceable to the Chinese influence? The two wild contending dragons that swirl in terrible menace and satisfactory curves on embroideries, porcelains, and carving, are familiar figures on Chinese work. Between them is always the flame-enveloped pearl or ball, for whose possession they ever contend. It is an inspiration for the artist in mahogany to clip one extended claw, to place snugly within it the floating ball, and to make at once the claw-and-ball foot, which is our delight. Who was the artist it is not safe to say, but as Chippendale was the most talented of adapters it is not unreasonable to lay the inspiration to him.
It is a matter of dispute where Chippendale was first introduced to Chinese art. A favourite theory is that the one responsible was Sir William Chambers, an artist who travelled much in the East, and who tried on his return to adapt Chinese styles to English requirements. It is true also that others made the same attempt. Edwards and Darly, a celebrated firm, manufactured also after the Chinese manner before the appearance of Chippendale's book, and Thomas Johnson published prior to this a book of designs embodying not only the Chinese but the Gothic and the rococo, engrafting all three on the English as did the more conspicuous master. William Halfpenny was another who designed in " Chi nese taste." But apart from all these adapters there was the mass of importations from China, and the fancy of fashionable folk to dress their homes with it, and these should in themselves have been enough to inspire one so quick to seize, so talented to adapt, as Chippendale.
For the old use of the word bureau we need only turn to the French, which means an office. Applied to the capacious desk of the time we are considering it is most apt. These desks so satisfactorily common in our country, these capacious repositories which make possible the hoarding of precious nothings, came in with the Dutch invasion, like the highboy, but it pleased Chippendale to perfect them as well as the three-footed tip table and other designs, so that the furniture immediately preceding him gave him a field whereon to work the magic of his embellishing lines. Also, this makes a little harder the agreeable puzzle of determining the dates of many of our American heirlooms. As a general clue, the simpler styles are the earlier, and although coming long past 1714, the end of the reign of Anne, they take her name in general classification merely because Chippendale is not yet arrived.
Grandfather clocks were introduced by the Marot who served Louis XIV, and then fled to Holland, which led to his being court architect under William III of England; but we are more interested, perhaps, in the fact that Chippendale made these tall monitors, or at least made their cases. His finest ones were after the French manner, even having a bombe base, but in general they were more happily severe. His designs were copied in this country, but even before his day their forerunners were being made by Benjamin Bignall in Boston, and others. Enos Doolittle of Hartford made clocks at the time Chippendale was flourishing in England.
Mirrors and girandoles by Chippendale are not easily confused with other varieties if one bears in mind their strong resemblance to the rococo. All through the eighteenth century the type prevailed which has a flat of dark wood, cut in a meaningless outline, and ornamented with gilded relief. They have a decided charm in their best manifestations, but are not the ambitious affairs of attenuated carving that Chippendale copied so closely from the French that the two are scarcely distinguishable. The four-post bedstead reigned in Chippendale's time, and on this his fancy played. Examples are extant of the magnificent canopies with which he crowned it, making of the bed a rococo couch or a Chinese pagoda, or a disturbing mingling of both, but for our purposes these are worth no more than casual mention.
The bed-posts, however, may well be studied to correct a mistake existing in the minds of many regarding the carved poles found in our country. Chippendale's poles are comparatively slender and have but slight enrichment, which is founded more on the classic than on his favourite French and Chinese, yet sometimes smacks of the Gothic.
The style of Chippendale, we have seen, is his because he dared. It unites what went before with what was imported, and was far from being his own, yet he was the greatest furniture-maker of his day in England, and created or assembled the parts of a distinctive style which has never been surpassed for elegance and utility among Northern peoples. The natural moral rigidity which we like to think is ever ours is reflected in this style, when it is contrasted in its entirety with the style prevailing in France at that time.
Scarcely one of the beauties of Chippendale that cannot be traced to the French inspiration; yet while taking the grace he left the laxity, engrafting embellishment on dignity, as when chaste Diana is crowned with a gay bacchante's wreath. And this happy combination is one we like to consider especially our own, and superior to the more voluptuous art of the Latin.
To continue with our hints on identification, it can be said in the final summing up that the style under consideration depends for enrichment on carving, never on inlay nor painting. This is a rule.
Beauty of proportion was studied carefully, so that even the simplest pieces were perfect of their kind. In his book Chippendale gives much instruction on architectural orders to the end that proportion may be studied. This was not a peculiarity of his book alone, nor original with him, for his work was not given to the public until 1753, and in 1739 William Jones published one of the first books on interiors and furniture. Abraham Swan, in 1745, interpreted in book form the rococo engrafted on the English square construction, illustrating delightfully the change of a decorative thought as it passes through an alien intelligence. Ince and Mayhew must not be overlooked as contemporaneous workers with Chippendale.
Mahogany is as closely associated with Chippendale as are the very syllables of his name. It was he who best developed its wonderful possibilities, discarding all ornament which might detract from the beauty of the wood. It is not true that he worked entirely in this medium, for he also used cherry, maple, and birch; nor is it true that he was the first to employ it. The story of its introduction is authentic and helps to fix the age of an antique English piece, but out of England it was used sparingly, as has been seen.
To Dr. Gibbon of London is given the credit of its entry into cabinet-making. The story is that his brother brought him some planks of the wood which he endeavoured to use as a substitute for a certain medicinal bark. The quantity on hand exceeding his need, he offered it to carpenters for the completion of some work they were executing for him. Found too hard, the wood was rejected. Thereupon the persistent doctor had a candle-box made of it, also a bureau, and such was his delight that he asked his friends to come and see the novelties. Among the guests was the Duchess of Buckingham, who begged the favour of some planks, had them made up into furniture, and at once the bright glow of mahogany was coveted by the fashionable and was lavishly adopted. This was in 1720.
And yet the Dutch were using the wood at the time of Charles II of England, and mahogany is mentioned in a Philadelphia inventory in 1708. All of which gives clues to the collector and student, at the same time a warning for pitfalls.
To continue with the English experiences of the wood, it brings us into close connection with Horace Walpole. His house at Houghton was building be tween 1722 and 1735, under Isaac Ware. One large room therein is described as " wainscotted in mahogany, and the bed, which is of painted taffety, stands in an alcove of the same room."
The increase in the variety of articles produced in this fascinating period of interior embellishment is easily explained by the rapid advance in intellectual life of the time, the increase of elegance in living, and the infinite demands of such existence. It was a time when Sir Joshua Reynolds was painting the beauties that thrill us now; when Garrick was making the world laugh or cry at his will, crying himself sometimes when too much softened by his cups; a time when the obscure son of the brilliant Lord Chesterfield was receiving the famous letters instructing him-and us-in a transcendent worldliness; a time when Locke was discoursing on the Human Understanding in a way to make us realise that it was highly developed; and a time when belles and beaux seem to have had prettier ways with them than ever are seen at shorter range.
The first of the house of Hanover, George I, came over with his German tongue and German household to reign over English people, but little or nothing did he contribute to the mental vivacity of the day. France, with its elegant and witty ways, was an inspiration more real, and was followed at a prudent distance, but not without admiration, - for were not Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu at Versailles with the makers of the philosophic Encyclopedia ?
George II was enthroned at the time of Chippendale's greatest prosperity, and in the Seven Years' War with France the American colonies were carrying their share of the trouble, which spread overseas. This was the time when George Washington appears as a gallant young officer, and independence was undreamed of. But while the chairs and tables of Chippendale were being used, the necessity was forced upon those who played their daily parts among them of resisting the unjust Stamp Act, and of following the counsel of Poor Richard, and other makers of American public opinion.
In our country we are accustomed to seeing the furniture of the Chippendale style disposed in rooms almost cold in their simplicity, unless the furniture has been removed from its original environment. Colonial houses maintained a great simplicity except in notable instances, but in England, the home of the Chippendale style, conditions were different. Therefore it is to England we must look for examples of interiors of the middle eighteenth century.
The most striking thing about the wood-work and decorations is the classic construction, about which the envious fancy set the eccentricities of the Louis Quinze detail imported in a frenzy of admiration and employed without understanding. The very secret of the Louis Quinze lines are their ability to stand without support, to form a harmonic whole in defiance of the laws of horizontal and uprights, to make decoration constructive.
Such delicacy, such riot of sensuality in line is not possible to the Anglo-Saxon. He must start with a firm, trustworthy construction; and, having thus satisfied his demand for solidity, he is ready to adorn that shape with the greatest fancies of the Latin's poetic vagaries. The result is that the whole spirit of the matter is lost. The gay details are there, but also the solid Briton, as though a solemn judge in court had set a cracker-motto cap above his wig and thrown a paper garland about his gown.
The doors and windows, the cornices and dadoes are in heavy dignity, more or less simple according to cost, and all are drawn on the lines followed by Wren, in emulation of Louis Quatorze. Then around these, in many instances, are incongruously laid the curves of the Louis Quinze style. Nothing could be more inharmonious, nor could anything more aptly illustrate the difference between inspired originality and covetous adoption.
Fortunately the style so impossible to transplant had but a brief and feeble hold, and true to their principles of art and morals, the artist-craftsmen of the day soon discarded the decorations that so ill accorded with the classic, retaining loyally the satisfying straight lines and Greek detail. Associated with these the Chippendale furniture is at its best.