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Chippendale's Early Work

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

When the founder of the firm of Chippendale came to London with his son, and in the still earlier days when he worked in Worcester, and taught the carver's art to Thomas Chippendale, who was destined to become a great power in the furniture trade, he would naturally work upon the materials he had been taught to regard as best for chairmaking. No doubt in the country, although walnut would be used for chairs, settees, and other pieces of furniture, such as those found existing today as examples of cabinet-making in the Walnut Age, when the Chippendales founded their business in Long Acre they would naturally look about them for what they would hope would prove the most acceptable goods to sell ; for the Chippendales were undoubtedly in business to make money, and not to expound any new theory or style for the mere love of art..

The early examples made by Thomas Chippendale, the elder, doubtless followed the prevailing fashion, although, perchance, he may have added improvements peculiarly his own, even in quite early times. The authentic records of this noted firm begin, however, when Thomas Chippendale, the son, removed his business to St Martin's Lane, and soon afterwards published his book. The well-defined style represented throughout the pages of ",The Director " confirms the opinion that for years previously the style now known as " Chippendale " must have been gradually acquired. The great Thomas Chippendale must have been a most successful and enterprising salesman, for few could have so entirely altered popular fancy in such a short time. It is note-worthy that in all subsequent styles, and in the furniture of later dates, there are traces of earlier styles. Thus in " Chippendale" furniture the expert can trace development from earlier designs, and those who follow the developments of draughtsmanship point out in seventeenth-century furniture indications of the coming change.

It is stated on good authority that the ease with which Thomas Chippendale revolutionised the designs of the cabinet-makers of his day was to some extent due to his power of adapting existing objects and designs, and making them subservient to his ideals, without destroying accepted models. The prosperity that attended his efforts and the growing demand for his furniture was doubtless attributable to the activity in commercial life, and to the prosperity of English merchants, in his day ; many of them were at that time prepared to refurnish and spend money on the new taste. Thomas Chippendale took, figuratively, the heavy Queen Anne furniture which had been in vogue, and which had undergone but slight change during the reigns of the early Georges, and enriched it with free application of the carver's tool. But he was not content with trans-forming stiff and formal furniture of English cabinet-makers, and that which had been modelled under Dutch influence, but he made free use of French designs, making the Louis furniture then in vogue in this country more like the English he was making in his workshops by adding to the French style that which was rapidly becoming a style of his own. It was from surrounding influences added to the groundwork of his experience in his early training as a practical cabinet worker and carver, to which must also be added the knowledge his men had of the furniture required by customers, that he was able to evolve a new style and to make it popular.

Some detailed reference is made in another paragraph to the characteristics of Chippendale's style. It may be mentioned here, however, that before that style became pronounced there was a great demand for card-tables, and Chippendale produced quite a number of the claw-andball type in his early days. That style, however, was discarded before 1754, when the first edition of his book was published, for we do not find that type of card-table illustrated in " The Director." Another indication of Chippendale's early work in making card-tables is seen in the sunk circular corners, which were made for the reception of tall silver or metal candlesticks. Again, as indicative of the early period, there is the cabriole table leg which waned in popularity, and disappeared about the year 1755.

Collectors should note that possibly some impetus was given to the cabinet-making trade, and to the conformity to some accepted style, about the time when Chippendale's early work was made, contributing, perhaps, to the rapid growth of his business ; for a change took place in trade practice in 1740. Up to that date chairmakers, that is, makers of chairs, settees, and stools, worked distinct from makers of so-called architects' and wall furniture, in which category were included cabinets and bookcases. Chippendale in his earliest days was not a cabinet-maker in the accepted sense of the term, for he only commenced making furniture in the year 1747, his efforts before that date being chiefly directed towards the manufacture of chairs, and as a practical wood - carver he had greatly altered the styles of the chair backs, adding ornament to the frames, and gradually shaping the legs according to the style he was formulating.

Of early authenticated pieces of the work of Thomas Chippendale there are few, and many of those reputed to have been made in his own workshops have changed hands several times, until the continuity of their pedigree is frequently unsubstantiated. The Kateshill walnut chair has been referred to frequently in books touching upon the early work of Thomas Chippendale, but it is held to have been made by the founder of the firm when he worked at Worcester. Mr Cescinsky describes this chair, and tells us that " the curves of the back, sweeping round into scrolls, the vase-shaped central splat carved with a conventional rendering of the escallop shell, the curved top-rail of the back, the cabriole legs crested over the seat framing, and the acanthus-carved seat-rail, are all of the fashion of 1730-1735, and point to the date of the early London career of the Chippendales." Seekers after the early period should note carefully chests of drawers, and fine bow-fronted chests with handles and rosettes, of the type which is scarcer than the serpentine-shaped fronts, for in many of these there are traces of departure from the accepted designs then in vogue.


As an exponent of a new style—one evolved from small suggestive features in existing styles, and from out-side influences coming from greater commercial knowledge of the work of other nations — it was appropriate that Thomas Chippendale should give the world a book of designs. This book —to give it its full title, " The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director "—has had so much to do with the promulgation of the Chippendale style and the maintenance of the reputation of the "House of Chippendale," as such a firm would be styled in modern parlance, that it calls for special mention and explanation. It is probable that no catalogue has ever gained such notoriety, although it does not stand alone in the furniture trade of that day. It was published at a time when the publication of such books was of rare occurrence, however, and costly to produce. The illustrations were executed by the aid of a copper-plate engraver, who in some instances was designer and draughtsman, too. It is here that the debates as to the origin of the designs wax hottest. Thomas Chippendale assumed the authorship of the designs as publisher, but he probably used the suggestive illustrations of other artists and designers ; indeed, there is much evidence that such was the case.

"The Director " was intended to be " a guide, counsellor, and friend " to the trade, and to the furniture-buying public, as set forth in the full title which reads in its entirety " The Gentleman and Cabinet - maker's Director, being a Large Collection of the most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the most Fashionable Taste." Chippendale further explained that the illustrations were " calculated to improve and refine the present taste, and suited to the fancy and circumstances of persons in all degrees of life." It is note-worthy that the object of the book, as put forward by the author, together with the character of the work, made it something more than a trade catalogue, for it gave "proper directions for executing the most difficult pieces, the mouldings being exhibited at large, and the dimensions of each design specified." That it proved a useful trade compendium and exponent of the style is evident from the fact that the subscribers (it was published by subscription) included cabinet - makers, carvers, joiners, enamellers, upholsterers, engravers, and other craftsmen and artists who evidently intended to make use of its contents.

Thomas Chippendale had an eye to the commercial value of the publication, and as he had only just transferred his business to St Martin's Lane, it was evidently intended to use it as an advertisement, as well as a book defining and explaining his style; making clear the correct forms of the style he had evolved, and showing by some of the extravagant designs included in the book heights to which that style could be carried.

The first edition of " The Director " was published in 1754, the second in 1759, a third edition being brought out in 1761. Original copies of " The Director " are scarce and costly to procure, but recent reproductions of the later editions have familiarised collectors with the contents of the work, and given them an insight into the style of the various articles Chippendale made. The following list of the more important contents of " The Director " is useful to the collector, containing as it does a summarised outline of the collectable objects showing Chippendale influence in their construction.

The common styles of chairs and furniture from Chippendale's book does not imply that he did not make such articles. His repute as a maker would be sufficient to warrant him in excluding from his book of designs well under-stood goods, and it would be sufficient for him to make only brief reference to goods of everyday sale. The sale of the first edition of "The Director" was soon followed by another, so that the author's most sanguine expectations must have been exceeded. Makers evidently welcomed the book, and freely utilised the suggested designs, which embodied a unique display of curious forms and decorative ornament as applied to furniture.

Underlying most of the designs was usefulness of purpose, for although it is contended that many of the designs, as drawn, were unworkable, there was a commercial value in the suggestions — idealistic and accomplished. It is scarcely conceivable that Thomas Chippendale, who was a thoroughly practical man, would include designs which he deemed to be useless. The disputes in reference to the authorship of some of the designs and their engravers may appear to be of small importance to the collector, but "The Director " is so bound up with Thomas Chippendale and the work he performed that it is almost impossible to separate them. It is only fair to assume that while Chippendale used the book as a guide to buyers of high-class furniture, he did not expect that it would convey exact details of construction, or indicate the full beauty of his carving and upholstery to his customer. It was intended rather to enunciate his style ; and just as fashion plates are published by costumiers, as picturing the effect rather than the actual designs of the goods, so Chippendale in his book did not purport to represent simply stock patterns.. Many of his designs were inspired by the drawings of earlier designers and cabinet-makers, especially by the exponents of the art of French cabinet-makers during the reign of Louis XV.

Chippendale probably evolved some of his best designs by studying the works of others, and incorporating in their schemes of design and ornament his own peculiar style. The patterns in his book were designs rather than illustrations of existing pieces. Moreover, many of them were obviously the work of a draughtsman and engraver, executed before the completion of the work by a practical cabinet - maker, otherwise they would have been made workable, as some are not. The interest in the designs as engraved warrants special reference to the engravers. In the first edition the engraving was chiefly done by Matthias Darly and T. Muller. The plates mostly bear Thomas Chippendale's signature, as was customary then to secure copyright. Darly was, however, something more than an engraver, in that he was evidently the designer of nearly all the patterns, although he may in some instances have merely carried out in detail designs suggested by some of the rough sketches of Thomas Chippendale. Further, an expert examination of the engravings shows that the plates could not in every instance have been specially engraved for " The Director," for many of them show traces of being much worn, even in copies of the first edition, which was by no means a large issue. It is thought that Chippendale purchased some of the plates and used them as suggested designs. In a third edition other engravers assisted Darly and Muller, there being ten engravers' signatures to the plates, six of them showing quite distinctive work ; but whether they simply interpreted original or borrowed designs differently, or were given a free license in matters of detail and ornament, is not known. There were at that time other books of design in the hands of cabinet-makers, including " Ince and Mayhew's Household Furniture," which was published in 1748, and " The Genteel House-hold Furniture in the Present Taste by a Society of Upholsters," published in 1743. Chippendale's book, which followed soon afterwards, quickly took first place, and its reputation was maintained, notwithstanding the fact that Chippendale himself recognised its imperfections. Moreover, he was not altogether satisfied with the designs he published, or in the manner of their presentation, for in his introduction he wrote : " And I am confident I can convince all Noblemen, Gentlemen, or others, who will honour me with their commands, that every design in the book can be improved, both as to beauty and enrichment, in the execution of it, by their most obedient servant, THOMAS CHIPPENDALE."

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