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Decorative Style - Hepplewhite

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The work of Hepplewhite and his school lasted from about 1760 to 1795 ; the last nine years of the time the business was carried on by his widow, Alice, under the name of A. Hepplewhite & Co. For five years after that some work was done after his manner, but it was distinctly inferior. In the early seventies Hepplewhite's work was so well known and so much admired that its influence was shown in the work of his contemporaries. There was a great difference between his style and that of Chippendale, his being much lighter in construction and effect, besides the many differences of design. Hepplewhite was strongly influenced by the French style of Louis XVI, and also the pure taste of Robert Adam at its height. Hepplewhite, however, like all the great cabinet-makers, both French and English, was a great genius himself and stamped the impress of his own personality upon his work.

Many people date Hepplewhite's fame from the time of the publication of his book, " The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide," in 1788, not realizing that he had been dead for two years when it appeared. Its publication was justified by the well established popularity of his furniture and the success with which his designs were carried out by A. Hepplewhite & Co.

It is interesting to notice the difference in the size of chairs which became apparent during Hepplewhite's time. Hoop-skirts and stiffened coats went out of fashion, and with them went the need of large chair seats. The transition chairs made by Hepplewhite were not very attractive in proportion, as the backs were too low for the width. The transition from Chippendale to Hepplewhite was not sudden, as the last style of Chippendale was simpler and had more of the classic feeling in it. Hepplewhite says, in the preface to his book: " To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable, has ever been considered a difficult, but an honor-able task." He sometimes failed and sometimes succeeded. His knowledge of construction enabled him to make his chairs with shield, oval, and heart-shaped backs. The tops were slightly curved, also the tops of the splats, and at the lower edge where the back and the splat join, a half rosette was carved. He often used the three feathers of the Prince of Wales, sheaves of wheat, anthemion, urns, and festoons of drapery, all beautifully carved, and forming the splat. The backs of his chairs were supported at the sides by uprights running into the shield-shaped back and did not touch the seat frame in any other way. With this apparent weakness of construction it is wonderful how many of his chairs have come down to us in perfect condition, but it was his knowledge of combining lightness with strength which made it possible.

Hepplewhite used straight or tapering legs with spade feet for his furniture, often inlaid with bellflowers in satinwood. The legs were sometimes carved with a double ogee curve and bead molding. He did not use carving in the lavish manner of Chippendale, but it was always beautifully done, and he used a great deal of inlay of satinwood, etc., oval panels, lines, urns, and many other motives common to the other cabinet-makers of the day, and also painted some of his furniture. His Japan work was inferior in every way to that of the early part of the eighteenth century. The upholstery was fastened to the chairs with brass-headed tacks, often in a festoon pattern. Oval-shaped brass handles were used on his bureaus, desks, and other furniture. He made many side-boards, some, in fact, going back to the side table and pedestal idea, and bottle-cases and knife-boxes were put on the ends of the sideboards. His regular sideboards were founded on Shearer's design.

Shearer's furniture was simple and dainty in design, and he has the honor of making the first real serpentine side-board, about 1780, which was not a more or less disconnected collection of tables and pedestals. It was the forerunner of the Hepplewhite and Sheraton sideboards that we know so well. Shearer is now hardly known even by name to the general world, but without doubt his ideal of lightness and strength in construction had a good deal of influence on his contemporaries and followers.

Hepplewhite was very fond of oval and semi-circular shapes, and many of his tables are made in either one way or the other. His sideboards, founded on Shearer's designs, are very elegant, as he liked to say, in their simplicity of line, their inlay, and their general beauty of wood. He was most successful in his chairs, sideboards, tables, and small household articles, for his larger pieces of furniture were often too heavy. Some of the worst, however, were made by other cabinet-makers after his designs, and not by Hepplewhite himself.



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