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The Chippendales - Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

For close upon a century the family of Chippendale exercised an influence on the furniture trade of this country in a marked degree, and the products of the Chippendales' workshops were looked upon as priceless treasures, sets of chairs, twelve singles and two easies, of by no means elaborate designs, changing hands at prices ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 guineas. It is remarkable that the reputation of one firm who occupied the arena for but one century outdistanced to such an extent all other makers of contemporary and other periods ! The influence the Chippendales exerted was so far-reaching that it is impossible to say what English furniture of the middle and the later half of the eighteenth century would have been like had the Chippendales not lived.

There were three Thomas Chippendales, father, son, and grandson—founding, building up, and continuing the business enterprise which promulgated the peculiar style they gradually evolved. It was a style that influenced craftsmen in many materials, for not only did carvers in wood copy the style they formulated, but stonemasons, engravers, and metal workers imitated the designs of the Chippendales, and their style became the vogue in architecture, and during the latter half of the eighteenth century gave form and ornament to almost every object of household use.

The founder of the well-known firm was a cabinet-maker, or, more correctly described, a joiner, working in Worcester. He was also a picture framer, and his son, Thomas Chippendale, destined to become the famous chair-maker and cabinet-maker of subsequent fame, was early taught the art of carving, in which he soon excelled ; he became a designer, too, of no mean order. Father and son removed to London prior to 1727, commencing business in Long Acre. After his father's death, which took place in 1753, the great Thomas Chippendale re-moved to 60 St Martin's Lane. By that time Chippendale had won fame, and had executed many fine pieces, his renown as a chairmaker had spread far and wide, and his ambition carried him beyond making chairs, and he soon had dreams of greater things, contemplating the adaptation of his new style to almost every kind of household furniture. His fame spread, and Thomas Chippendale soon had three shops in St Martin's Lane, wherein he employed many skilled journeymen. It was in the year 1754, the year following his removal from Long Acre, that the first edition of that noted book, " The Gentleman and Cabinet - maker's Director " was published. A year later a fire occurred, destroying Chippendale's workshops, and, probably, some finished goods as well as much valuable material. From the account of the fire we learn that the workshops contained twenty-two workmen's chests of tools, so that with a fair allotment of apprentices such a staff, large in those days, enabled the master cabinet-maker to turn out much furniture. At one time Chippendale had a partner, James Rennie, and soon after his partner's death he instituted a sale of surplus stock. Realisation sales so common in these days were not unknown in the eighteenth century, for " sales " were much in vogue; but it was the auctioneer who was in such frequent request. Traders' prices were not then always based on actual cost to the same extent as they are today.

This sale seems to have marked a point in Thomas Chippendale's career, for it would appear that his popularity was fast growing. He was a trader and an excellent man of business, as well as an artist and a craftsman. His book of designs had already made him famous, and they were much copied, the "new " style rapidly spreading. All through his career Thomas Chippendale maintained an adherence to quality and good workmanship, well meriting his claim to be one of the great artists of his day. Connoisseurs fully recognise the superiority of the work carried out in his workshops under his own immediate supervision, and although there are many fine examples of the Chippendale style, which had been made by his contemporaries in London and in the provinces, there is a peculiar finish about those goods which must have been made under his own immediate direction, or by one or other of those men who ultimately became master cabinet-makers, after having served some time in Chippendale's workshops as journeymen.

Thomas Chippendale was a member of the Society of Arts, in which body were many great men of his day, among them dukes, earls, and admirals of the fleet ; Cipriani the painter, Garrick, Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Hogarth, and the Brothers Adam, fellow exponents of a new style applied to architectural and household furnishing decorations. Chippendale was undoubtedly a man of genius, possessing brilliant ideas, and a splendid aptitude for adaptation. How far he was helped by his men we do not know, but we are forced to the conclusion that such a master mind would pick out the cleverest men he could find, and that some of his workmen must have contributed to the success of his new style, which was used with so much skill in the decoration and oftentimes necessary reshaping of existing models.

Of the private life of Thomas Chippendale we know very little ; indeed, neither he nor his father left behind them anything other than the style of furniture design associated with their name. In the old graveyard of the Parish Church of St Martin's in the Fields is to be found the burying-place of the great cabinetmaker, whose death took place on 13th November 1779.

Chippendale's son, also named Thomas, apparently learned the art of cabinet-making in his father's work-shops, and soon after his father's death entered into partnership with Thomas Haig, his father's book-keeper. The two men, one presumably a business men, the other a practical cabinet - maker, continued to manufacture household furniture in the old workshops. They removed to the Haymarket, where we find they carried on business from 1814 to 1821, in which year they removed to Jermyn Street ; the death of Thomas Chippendale, the last of the family, occurring in 1823. The fame of Chippendale's style spread, for during the three generations many journeymen cabinet-makers came and went. Some founded businesses of their own in London, others in provincial towns. Trained under the eye of the great master they understood his style, and either copied the patterns they found in " The Director " or adapted them to furniture of slightly different form. Thus the Chippendale period was extended, and its fame spread in many directions.

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