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Chippendale - The Characteristics Of The Style

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

As it has been seen in the preceding paragraph, Chippendale's designs were suggestive, rather than drawn to scale or given in detail for the cabinet-maker to work to. Many of them were fanciful, and in the execution of them much latitude was allowed to the carver to fit in the figures, birds, and other shapes ; and in the execution of the work the result achieved would depend very much upon the skill and the free carving of the artist. Nevertheless, in carrying out Chippendale's suggestions, the carvings, if not conventional, were at any rate restricted, and some of them were engraved more after the style of a copy set by a drawing master than would be the case in working drawings given to a craftsman.

In studying the characteristics of Chippendale's designs it must be remembered that even after Chippendale had formulated and established his style, he had frequently to deviate in the execution of furniture for which he received orders. Many of his customers would have preconceived ideas, and as he was a good tradesman as well as an artist, Chippendale would naturally, as far as possible, fall in line with the views of his clients.

There are three distinct styles noticeable in Chippendale's chairs, and as he was a chair-maker before any-thing else, we are safe in looking to the chair for his purest characteristic design. His chairs may be divided in their design and decoration as follows :

(1) Upright centre bars, which eventually became " riband " backs ;

(2) All-over patterns including the so-called " Chinese " and " Gothic " ; and

(3) Horizontal rails.

The first type (1) were usually cabriole-legged, and the splats or centre bars were pierced and scrolled. The later development of the first type was intended to imitate ribbon, not at all an easy task in wood. The " all-over backs " (2), as their name denotes, were practically all filled in ; they had square legs, perforated or incised. The " ladder backs " (3) seem to have taken their name from their resemblance to the rungs of ladders. From these evolved the change into the Chinese taste, and as a side issue into Gothic ornament. The Chippendale Gothic was light and lacy in its tracery, and the ornament of the legs in keeping, much of the solid appearance of church Gothic having been eliminated from the designs for domestic furniture.

It is convenient to tabulate the dates when certain developments in style took place. These briefly are as follows

1725. The earliest departure from then existing styles. 1735. French influence apparent, marking in its adaptation by Chippendale a new style.

1745. More floral devices, and early traces of Chinese taste.

1750. Chinese taste more prominent. A lighter appearance, and more French decoration. 1760. Gothic designs. A greater extravagance in design and decoration.

The style that eventually became known as "Irish Chippendale " was used in the homes of English land-owners, who had become possessed of large estates in Ireland.

The period in which Chippendale's best work was made was undoubtedly that in which carving predominated. His- work was not always pure in style, for many collectors' pieces are obtained which are composite in design. Thus in Clouston's book on " The Chippendale Period in English Furniture" there is a screen illustrated showing in combination the three chief characteristic styles already referred to. This screen, with the simple frame scarcely admitting of much individualistic treatment, indicates easy changes, by which the artist was able without any clashing of design to bring in French influence and Chinese and Gothic types. In some of his best works Chippendale made free use of Dutch designs. Perhaps, however, the greatest evidence of outside influence in Chippendale's work was that brought to bear by the Chinese taste of his day, which caused him to evolve that peculiar and characteristic style which marks " Chippendale according to Chinese taste."


The influence brought to bear upon Chippendale's work by his study of the French manner made itself seen in some of his later work. The most conspicuous feature was that the more Chippendale introduced rococo and French ornament his own stamp of individuality was weakened. Fortunately Chippendale did not approve of marqueterie, French painted ornament, or the introduction of ormolu metal work. Therefore, even the furniture in which he introduced French designs in his later years was distinct. Indeed, in the third edition of " The Director " Chippendale admits French influence, and describes some of his patterns as French models. One important feature to note is the introduction of the French leg, and in a few instances the chased or gilded brass of fittings, handles, and handle-plates of ormolu are undoubtedly of French style. Chippendale further conceded to French taste by the use of marble tops to some of his commodes made between the years 1770 and 1780.


It cannot be said that Gothic designs were ever very popular in this country for domestic furniture. In most rooms such designs would have been out of keeping. There were, however, exceptions, especially where the dwellings were brought under ecclesiastical influence. Church Gothic was adopted by some architects in the eighteenth century, and Gothic furniture suitable for rectories and the dwellings of some of the dignitaries of the church would doubtless be a welcome innovation, although it has been reserved for twentieth-century householders to insist upon furniture in keeping with architecture.

It is said that the Gothic style was introduced by Batty Langley, who in 1747 published a book entitled, " Gothick Architecture Improved by Rules and Proportions." Critics have said that Langley never showed any true Gothic spirit or understood the influence of cathedral wood-work as shown in the carvings of mediaeval days. It was Horace Walpole who did much to popularise the so-called eighteenth-century Gothic style, but unfortunately in adapting Gothic designs to furniture the freedom of Gothic became cramped and warped. Gothic influence in furniture was not altogether confined to Chippendale design, for a book was published in 1765 by R. Manwaring, entitled " The Carpenters' Compleat Guide to the Whole System of Gothic Railing." It is contended that notwithstanding the patronage of Horace Walpole, and the adaptation of Gothic ornament in Chippendale's "Director," the style never became popular. There is an undoubted comparative rarity of existing specimens, and contemporary cabinet-makers do not appear to have found the style sufficiently attractive to have warranted them in following Chippendale's lead in this particular direction, and in a very short time Gothic Chippendale gave place to the interlacing splat which undoubtedly afforded the carver and the wood-worker greater opportunities, and made it possible to render the chair or other piece of furniture attractive and saleable.


Fretted furniture is closely allied with the so-called " Chinese taste," but although it may have been influenced by, and in its full development unquestionably became a part of, the Chinese ornament, Chippendale and others adopted it in its earlier and simpler application as a distinct form of decoration. In its primary use fretted ornament is seen in the beautiful light gallery tops of tripod tables. In that application it followed the "pie crust " edges, but in many of its uses fretted ornament was contemporary with other styles. Fret-galleries do not seem to have been used much before 1760, and the style did not remain commonly in vogue more than about ten years.

This fretted ornament, a really tasteful form of decoration, was produced by laborious cutting by hand, and must be in no way confused with the machine-cut frets which had a running in the furniture trade between 1870 and 1880. The eighteenth century gallery-topped tables made up of small spindles produced a somewhat similar form of decoration, and although generally employed a little later were favoured by some cabinet - makers in preference to the fretted ornament. This latter style was used as a convenient rail ornament on the friezes of oblong tables, and the more fragile cuttings were laid over the solid wood. Mahogany was almost exclusively the material employed for that style of ornament, both that and the open fret - work being soon afterwards applied to chair backs and legs. Then came the added effect produced by the carver's art, and the fuller aspect of the style as seen in the "Chinese taste."

Specimens of fretted rail-top tables are not uncommon, and the smaller tripod stands with square tops and raised fronts are pleasing collectors' pieces. Of these there are several good examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington, where there are also hanging shelves and fretted furniture of the more advanced Chinese taste.


The fuller development of fretted furniture came when an impetus was given to Chinese taste by Sir William Chambers, who added architecture—and afterwards interior ornament — in Chinese style to the attractions of the East, as exemplified by Chinese ceramics and metal work, so much of which was then being imported into this country. This impetus was given by the publication of a book entitled "Book of Chinese Buildings," in which Sir William Chambers, who was a great authority on such matters, gave to the world the story of life in the land of the Celestials, and pictured many of their wonderful buildings, palaces, and houses. From the accounts there given of the interiors of Chinese houses at that period, as seen by Chambers during his visit to China, we learn about the different objects, which collectors of the Oriental antiques — and copies of the Oriental style made in England at that time — may hope to secure.

In describing the movable furniture of such a home in China, Chambers says, " The movables in the saloon consist of chairs, stools, and tables, made sometimes of rosewood, ebony, or lacqueredwork, and sometimes of bamboo only, which is cheap, and nevertheless very neat. When the movables are of wood the seats of the stools are often of marble or of porcelain, which though hard to sit on are far from unpleasant in a climate where the summer heats are so excessive. In the corners of the room are stands, four or five feet high, on which they set plates of citrons and other fragrant fruit, or branches of coral and vases of porcelain, and glass globes containing gold fish, together with a certain weed, somewhat resembling fennel ; on such tables as are intended for ornament only, they also place little landscapes, composed of rocks, shrubs, and a kind of lily that grows among pebbles covered with water."

Such was the glowing picture painted by Sir William Chambers after his visit to China. He was enthusiastic about the buildings he had seen, and longed to introduce the Chinese style in English architecture. No doubt his views were in accord with those of Chippendale, who in his book in reference to the Chinese style, wrote : " If finished according to the drawing and by a very good workman, I am confident it will be very genteel." The opportunity came to Chambers when he secured a commission to design ornamental buildings for the gardens of the Royal Palace at Kew, at that time occupied by Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales. The outcome of the appointment was the famous pagoda at Kew. It set the fashion, and not only were summer houses built upon that pattern, but a demand sprang up for furniture in keeping with that peculiar style of architecture, so entirely new in this country.

Thomas Chippendale was aware of the coming craze. His book had already promulgated the style. The chairs designed after the " Chinese manner " were described by him as " very proper for a lady's dressing-room, especially if hung with India paper."

Sir William Chambers evidently associated furniture designing with the work of an architect, and on many occasions designed furniture for wealthy clients, one of his most noted works being a remarkable cabinet for Charles IV. of Spain. The taste, although destined to be shortlived, set in, and Chippendale and other con-temporary cabinet - makers adopted the Chinese style. They made galleried tables on which to display Chinese porcelain. They also designed pagoda stands for the same purpose, one of Chippendale's designs being a most elaborate affair with a covered top terminating with a carved dragon. There were mantels and overmantels in the Chinese taste, some very extravagant in style. There were also many hanging cabinets, chiefly used for the display of porcelain ; one very remarkable hanging cabinet ornamented with masks, griffin ornaments, and imitations of dripping water is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Among the carved ornaments introduced into the Chinese taste are mandarins, umbrellas, long - tailed and long-billed birds, lions' heads, dolphins, and, curiously enough, subjects taken from Greek mythology. It has already been intimated that Darly engraved many of the fanciful designs in " The Director." Evidently Darly was well acquainted with the Chinese taste, for in con-junction with another engraver, named Edwards, he published a book in which he gave a remarkable selection of Chinese ornaments, which might be used and adapted by the wood-carver, and perhaps by the metal worker. Among the objects referred to there, in addition to those already mentioned as being included in this style of decoration, are bridges, water summer houses, porticos, palisades, and water flowers, and little scenes associated with tea drinking, and with fishing with birds and nets.


Although Irish Chippendale is somewhat of a misnomer, the name which attaches to that peculiar style as well as its general contour suggests the appropriateness of its inclusion in this chapter. It was the work of cabinet-makers in Ireland, and of those who made for the Irish market at a time when Thomas Chippendale was influencing to such an extent the productions of his contemporaries. It was, however, apparently formulated to some extent independently, and even earlier than it was possible for the influence of Chippendale to have spread so far afield. Hence it is that the name of the style, distinctive although strongly marked with Chippendale environment, is not a happily chosen one. Mr Cescinsky says : "None of the furniture of this type possesses, even remotely, any of the characteristics of the work of Thomas Chippendale." He considers that the influence of the St Martin's Lane cabinet-maker could not then have reached across the Channel. We have to remember, however, who were the buyers of such furniture, and to recall that they would be familiar with Chippendale's designs, and through their influence were in a position to create a demand for such a style in Ireland sooner than the popularity of Chippendale's work would otherwise have done.

Whatever may have been the origin of the so-called Irish Chippendale, whether made in London, in provincial towns, or in Ireland, such furniture had a sufficiently characteristic style running through it as to give it individuality. It is apparent that there is a suggested Dutch influence upon the Chippendale characteristics. There is also a somewhat heavy foliated carving of the rail, chiefly shown in tables. There is, as it were, the " spirit " of Chippendale in the designs, but for the most part wrongly interpreted, and to some extent there is a suggestion of a lingering attachment to an earlier style. These marked differences between Irish Chippendale and the Chippendale furniture with which collectors and home connoisseurs are familiar, seem to indicate that the exponents of the style, if not the designers, were of another school, and not as yet familiar with the newer style in which they were working.


The tripod furniture in vogue between 1750 and 1765 is illustrated very sparsely in the first edition of " The Director," from which it is evident that it was only then in process of introduction, and apparently unapplied to tables. The few illustrations given were confined to tripod banner screens and candlestick stands. Later, however, the principle was extended to tables, it being found that the tripod gave great rigidity to the table or stand. Some of the examples found in collections evidently of rather late dates, are very beautifully executed, special work being put into the stands, many of which are delicately carved. The carving of the clawand-ball feet, and also of the stem, is chased, and the rim of the table top is frequently of great beauty.

Candle-stands were much in use when tall silver and Sheffield-plate candlesticks and candelabra took the place of wall girandoles and candles on brackets. They were much called for in conjunction with card-tables, so many of which were made at that time. When the candle-stands had become general the dished places for the candles on the card-tables were discarded, the portable stands being found more convenient.

Another development of the tripod stand came about with the growing popularity of tea drinking, which had then become the fashion. The tripod tea and coffee tables were put forward by Chippendale and his con-temporaries and their successors as novelties. As business men those cabinet-makers, like tradesmen to-day, watched every new mode and change of fashion, and took advantage of them to introduce new goods—specially to popularise additional articles of furniture.

It is interesting to trace in the increase of the varieties of furniture introduced from time to time the altered and advanced taste of the age which in nearly every case gives the tradesman and craftsman some new opportunity of which he is not slow to make use. The increase in production is mainly made up of the advance and progress which bring new desires and create fresh needs. It is seldom that older objects disappear altogether—although there are some instances in which this is the case. Older goods change in purpose, and from them evolve new styles more in accord with modern necessities ; but when once they are in daily use they mostly become permanent although changed. All the time, however, new objects are needed, and it is thus that the cabinet-maker's craft has grown from small beginnings, the tripod table being an example of an added luxury, in its application to fire screens, candle-stands, and coffee-tables.

Even when some of the older purposes declined, and the need of a tripod table or stand lessened, and to some extent disappeared, the tripod table continued to be required for other purposes. It became a cabinet for curios, in the form of a table with a covered top ; or it was used as a display table for silver and trinkets, and when its use became general for the latter purpose a further opportunity came for lacquer ornament, and for the use of inlays with appropriate decorative treatment of the stem and top.

The pie-crust top is the distinguishing name given to a special form of decorative rim or border used round the top of more elaborate tripod tables. That, however, preceded the carved or fretted gallery and the Chinese style.

Another development of the tripod came when later in the eighteenth century the principle was applied to basin stands. It will be remembered that most of the bedroom washstands of Chippendale's day were small. They were literally washstands, or stands for the basins and ewers such as Spode and other famous potters turned out towards the close of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps one of the most popular applications of the tripod stand to the more ornamental and artistic furniture of the period is seen in the pole screens which have been much sought after by collectors of late years ; such screens varied in height, ranging from about 4 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft. 6 in. The screen itself was usually oblong, a favourite size being 2 ft. 8 in. by 2 ft.—other screens are met with almost square. There does not appear to have been any standard size either for the frame or the needlework. The smaller screens, however, are mostly of a later style, and do not come within the range of Chippendale tripods. It may be well for collectors to remember that many genuine antiques have been spoiled by the substitution of inferior modern tapestry or needle-work in lieu of the petit point, the style of needlework popular when the screen was made, this so-called restoration being due to the original needlework having perished.

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