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Chippendale And The Eighteenth Century England

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The classification of furniture in England is on a different basis from that of France, as the rulers of England were not such patrons of art as were the French kings. Flemish, Dutch and French influences all helped to form the taste of the people. The Jacobean period lasted from the time of James I to the time of William and Mary. William brought with him from Holland the strong Dutch feeling that had a tremendous influence on the history of English furniture, and during Anne's short reign the Dutch feeling still lasted.

It was not until the early years of the reign of George II that the Georgian period came into its own with Chippendale at its head. Some authorities include William and Mary and Queen Anne in the Georgian period, but the more usual idea is to divide it into several parts, better known as the times of Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. French influence is marked throughout and is divided into parts. The period of Chippendale was contemporaneous with that of Louis XV, and the second part included the other three men and corresponded with the last years of Louis XV, when the transition to Louis XVI was begining, and the time of Louis XVI.

The top of the Dutch chair had a flowing curve, the splat was first solid and plain, then carved, and later pierced in geometrical designs; then came the curves that were used so much by Chippendale. The carving consisted of swags and pendants of fruit and flowers, shells, acanthus leaves, scrolls, eagle's heads, carved in relief on the surface.

Dutch chairs were usually of walnut and some of the late ones were of mahogany. Mahogany was not used to any extent before 1720, but at that time it began to be imported in large quantities, and its lightess and the ease with which it could be worked made it appropriate for the lighter style of furniture then coming into vogue.

Chippendale began to make chairs with the curved top that is so characteristic of his work. The splat back was always used, in spite of the French, and its treatment is one of the most interesting things in the history of English furniture. It gave scope for great originality. Although, as I have said before, foreign influence was strong, the ideas were adapted and worked out by the great cabinet-makers of the Georgian period with a vigor and beauty that made a distinct English style, and often went far, far ahead of the originals.

There were, so far as we know, three Thomas Chippendales : the second was the great one. He was born in Worcester, England, about 1710, and died in 1779. He and his father, who was also a carver, came to London before 1727. Very little is known about his life, but we may feel sure he was that rare combination : a man of genius with decided business ability. He not only designed the furniture which was made in his shop, but executed a large part of it also, and superintended all the work done there by others. That he was a man of originality shows distinctly through his work, for although he adapted and copied freely and was strongly influenced by the Dutch, French, and " Chinese taste," there is always his own distinctive touch. The furniture of his best period, and those belonging to his school, has great beauty of line and proportion, and the exquisite carving shows a true feeling for ornament in relation to plain surfaces. There are a few examples in existence of carving in almost as high relief as that of Grinling Gibbons, swags, etc., and in his most rococo period his carving was very elaborate. It always had great clearness of edge and cut, and a wonderful feeling for light and shade. In what is called " Irish Chippendale," which was furniture made in Ireland after the style of Chippendale, the carving was in low relief and the edges fairly smoothed off, which made it much less interesting.

Chippendale looked upon his work as one of the arts and placed his ideal of achievement very high, and that he received the recognition of the best people of the time as an artist of merit is proved by his election to the Society of Arts with such men as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and others.

The genius of Chippendale justly puts him in the front rank of cabinet-makers and his influence was the foundation of much of the fine work done by many others during the eighteenth century. He is often criticized for his excessive rococo taste as displayed in the plates of the " Gentleman's and Cabinet-maker's Director," and in some of his finished work. Many of the designs in the " Director " were probably never carried out, and some of them were probably added to by the soaring imaginations of the engraver. This is true of all the books published by the great cabinet-makers, and it always seems more fair to have their reputations rest on their finished work which has come down to us.

Chippendale, of course, must bear the chief part of the charge of over-elaboration, and he frankly says that he thinks " much enrichment is necessary." He copied Meissonier's designs and had a great love for gilding, but the display of' rococo taste is not in all his work by any means, nor was it so excessive as that of the French. The more self-restrained temperament of the Anglo-Saxon race makes a deal of difference. He early used the ogee curve and cabriole leg, the kees of which he carved with cartouches and leaves or other designs. The front rail of the chair also was often carved. There were several styles of curved leg, the cabriole leg of Dutch influence, and the curved style of Louis XV. There were also several variations on the claw and ball foot. Many Chippendale chairs were without stretchers, but the straight legged style usually had four. The seats were some-times in a box frame or rebate, and sometimes the covering was drawn over the frame and fasteed with brass headed nails. Chippendale in the " Director " speaks of red morocco, Spanish leather, damask, tapestry and other needlework as being appropriate for the covering of his chairs.

In about 1760 or 1765 he began to use the straight leg for his chairs. The different shapes of splats will often help in deciding the dates of their making, and its development is of great interest. The curves shown in the diagram on page 84 are the merest suggestions of the outline of the splat, and they were carved most beautifully in many different designs. Ribbon-back chairs are dated about 1755 and show the adapted French influence. His Gothic and Chinese designs were made about 1760-1770. Ladder-back chairs nearly always had straight legs, either plain or with double ogee curve and bead moldings, but there are a few examples of ladder-back and cabriole legs combined, although these are very rare. The chair settees of the Dutch time, with backs having the appearance of chairs side by side, were also made by Chippendale. " Love seats " were small settees. It was naively said that " they were too large for one and too small for two." A large armchair that shows a decided difference in the manners of the early eighteenth century and the present day was called the " drunkard's chair."

When the craze for " Indian work " was at its height, there were many pieces of old oak and walnut furniture covered with lacquer to bring it up to the fashionable standard, but their forms were not suitable, and oak especially, with its coarse grain did not lend itself to the process. The stands for lacquer cabinets vary in style, but were often gilded in late Louis XIV and Louis XV style. The difference between true lacquer and its imitations is hard to explain. The true was made by repeated coats of a special varnish, each rubbed down and allowed to become hard before the next was put on. This gave a hard, cool, smooth surface with no stickiness. Modern work, done with paint and French varnish, has not this delightful feeling, but is nearly always clammy to the touch, and the colors are hurt by the process of polishing. Chippendale did not use much lacquer, but in the " Director " he often says such and such designs would be suitable for it.

Much of the furniture that Chippendale made was heavy, but the best of it had much beauty. His delicate fretwork tea-tables are a delight, with their fretwork cupboards and carving. He seemed to combine many sides in his artistic temperament, a fact that many people lay to his power of assimilating the work of others. He did not make side-boards in our sense of the word. His were large side-tables, sometimes with a drawer for silver and sometimes not. Pier-tables were very much like them in shape, but smaller, and were often gilded to match the mirrors which were placed above them.

The larger pieces of Chippendale furniture have the same characteristic of perfect workmanship and detail which the chairs possess. Dining-tables were made in sections consisting of two semi-circular ends and two center pieces with flaps which could all be joined together and make a very large table. The beds he made had four posts and cornice tops elaborately carved and often gilded, with a strong Louis XV feeling. The curtains hung from the inside of the cornice. He also made many other styles of beds, such as canopy beds, tent beds, flat tester beds, Chinese beds, Gothic beds: there was almost nothing he did not make for the house from wall brackets to the largest wardrobes.

To many people used to the simple Chippendale furniture which is commonly seen, the idea of rich and beautiful carving and gilding comes as a surprise, and even in the " Director " there are no plates which show his most beautiful work. His elaborate furniture was naturally chiefly order work, and so was not pictured, and much of it that is left is still in the possession of the descendants of the original owners. The small number of authentic pieces which have reached public sales have been eagerly snapped up by private collectors and museums at large prices.

In America much of the furniture called Chippendale was not made by Chippendale himself, but was made after his designs and copied from imported pieces by clever cabinet-makers here in the, then, colonies. The average American of the eighteenth century was a simple and not over rich person of good breeding and refined taste who appreciated the fact that the elaborate furniture of England and France would not be in keeping with life in America, and so either imported the simpler kinds, or demanded that the home cabinet-maker choose good models for his work. This partly explains why we have so much really good Colonial furniture, and not so much of the elaborately carved and gilded variety.



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