From Chippendale's Workshop
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It would be very interesting indeed to trace the different hands through which genuine specimens of Chippendale furniture have passed. Alas ! but few are authenticated, and the identity of many pieces which obviously bear traces of the great master's art as a carver has been lost. There are, however, some sets of chairs and other pieces of furniture still in the possession of descendants of the original owners who commissioned Thomas Chippendale to work to his own designs, and to furnish them with examples as portrayed in his famous book " The Director."
The chief customers of the St Martin's Lane cabinet-maker were found in London, among the merchant princes of the city. The last half of the eighteenth century was a time when business men were laying the foundations of commercial houses, and of families who afterwards owned country seats, and subsequently became famous. Those were the days, however, when even the merchant princes lived in town houses ; their residences were in London squares, many of which have changed in their residential and commercial character, although in some instances the exteriors of the homes where Thomas Chippendale's furniture was housed have altered little. The business men of London in the eighteenth century were by no means stingy in matters of house-furnishing, and when they refurnished or bought new chairs and tables they did so in accord with the fashionable mode, and took care that those things they bought were soundly made, and of lasting quality. The furniture of Thomas Chippendale was never cheap, and the sound workmanship and good quality of that made by contemporary makers, and those who had learned their art under him, indicate that there were no common imitations of the great master's designs.
Much of the furniture outlined in the designs pre-pared by Thomas Chippendale was made for middle-class homes, and included comparatively insignificant pieces, as well as the more important furniture. These smaller, and some might consider trivial, pieces of furniture were extremely beautiful and ornate, showing the influence of the prevailing style on even the less important articles. Working cabinet-makers appreciated the motive of the "new " style, and adopted it in their workshops. It is, however, well known that Chippendale was not only a designer but a large maker, and from the number of hands he employed in his workshops in St Martin's Lane there is little doubt that many of the objects which are put on one side to-day as being unauthenticated were made by Thomas Chippendale or his men, although there is no means of identifying them. It is clear that as " The Director " served the purpose of a trade catalogue of designs it would be shown to customers, and orders would be taken from it in preference to the preparation of special designs. It is, therefore, only fair to assume that there were many copies of the less important and more frequently required objects, just as the more popular goods made by a modern cabinet - maker of repute are duplicated.
Thomas Chippendale could not have been narrow-minded in his views, nor could he have wished to retain the sole copyright of his designs, for his book was sold with the avowed object of inducting other master men in the designs he was wishful to popularise. That many such pieces of furniture were made in accord with the designs he prepared is evident from the examples which come into the market from time to time, but as many of these goods were made by men less experienced than Chippendale, or the men he employed, it is quite understandable that some of these examples are by no means clever copies, or designs which Chippendale prepared and executed in his own workshops. Referring to some well-known examples of noted sets made by Chippendale, Mr Cescinsky, in his work "English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century," mentions a set of chairs said to have been made for Marie Antoinette on a model which was evidently repeated more than once. He also mentions other pieces of undoubted Chippendale furniture ; but as their location is now uncertain it is useless to repeat their descriptions.
Some writers have given illustrations of chairs and furniture made and supplied by Chippendale ; but unfortunately antiques are frequently changing hands. Examples which have been in the hands of the same families from the time they left the workshop in St Martin's Lane until quite recent years from time to time come into the hands of collectors whose taste changes, and thus it is that specimens are sold to be replaced by others, or an entire collection comes under the hammer and is dispersed. Unfortunately, few of these pieces can be inspected while they remain in private hands. There are the galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum which have already been referred to, but although those galleries contain many very fine examples of early English furniture, there are comparatively few following the Chippendale style, and the authorities, always careful to give accurate descriptions of their art treasures, describe them as " after the style of Chippendale." None of the examples in the galleries are directly stated to be the work of Thomas Chippendale himself. In those galleries, however, as in the sale-rooms and the galleries of dealers in London and the provinces, the connoisseur may learn his lesson, and the collector, by becoming familiar with the characteristics of any period of furniture he specialises upon, will be enabled to distinguish between correct copies of Chippendale's work and those of later days, which differ in materials, construction, and workmanship.