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Hepplewhite's Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The craftsman—His small models—Characteristics of Hepplewhite's works—" The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Guide "—The firm's work—Some Hepplewhite examples.

IN considering the furniture of the Hepplewhite style, and when buying pieces which have unmistakable signs of being in accord with the principles he laid down, we must remember that Hepplewhite died in 1786, having worked for many years, and founded the reputation of the work afterwards carried on in the Hepplewhite workshops. We have also to bear in mind that Hepplewhite's death by no means signalled the decline of his business, neither are we justified in affirming that the firm of which his widow was the active head relied solely upon the patterns in the book they published (most of which would doubtless be prepared and some of them made up in the time that George Hepplewhite was alive), for they probably designed others. We must also bear in mind that the style of Hepplewhite had " caught on," and had a large following in London and in provincial towns. It is, therefore, probable that vast quantities of furniture of Hepplewhite's patterns, and in line with the teaching of the school he founded, were made between the years 1780 and 1800 ; that is to say, for several years previous to Hepplewhite's death, during the whole career of the firm of A. Hepplewhite & Co., and for a few years later ; in fact, in many places until the fame of Hepplewhite had waned, and public taste, ever craving for something new, fancied Sheraton or some other mode his patterns would be reproduced.


George Hepplewhite is known to have been in business as a cabinet-maker somewhere in the parish of St Giles', Cripplegate. The period in which he lived and worked seems to some extent to fill up the gap or time of lessened influence between the days of Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton, although he must have been steadily making a name for himself, and gaining publicity for his designs when Chippendale's productions were still in vogue, and also when Sheraton's designs were even then being eagerly copied as a marked advance on the former school.

Hepplewhite's real contemporary was Thomas Shearer (whose work is referred to in chap. xvi.) and the Brothers Adam, whose chief inspirations were at that time architectural, and mostly applied to mantel-pieces and larger works than the chairs in which Hepplewhite revelled.

That Hepplewhite received his real inspirations from the influences at work in his day none will deny, although most connoisseurs—not all—admit that from those sources he evolved that which was entirely new. The style that influenced him most was the decorative French style—the style prevailing during the reigns of Louis XV. and Louis XVI.


Hepplewhite does not appear to have had any great love for the massive and grand. He preferred smaller and more delicate objects, and tried to reduce the size of chairs and settees and other articles of furniture without impairing their usefulness or lessening their beauty. Most of the ornaments George Hepplewhite used were well adapted to the chairs of lessened calibre, and also to the small and tasteful articles of furniture which he provided for the dainty drawing-rooms and boudoirs of his day. In describing his small models—and, indeed, Hepplewhite's work generally—chairs seem to come quite naturally into the greatest prominence, for it is his designs of chair-backs which present such striking characteristics, and show his chief development of the style he was formulating. It was in making chairs that he struck out on new lines. The shield became one of the chief attractions of Hepplewhite chair-backs. Sometimes it was inverted, at others it became a demi-shield, nicknamed the " camel-back," from its so-called hump in the centre of the design. Some-times the camel-back is independent of the shield, being separately supported. Now and then we notice remains of Chippendale's school in the Cupid bow-top. Some of Hepplewhite's chairs based on Chippendale's designs are carved in relief, the graceful backs which he evolved making them especially suitable for low relief decoration. Many of the pierced backs are interlaced with ribbon ; others have beautiful festoons, and here and there classical vases of the Adam school are introduced. The Prince of Wales' ostrich plumes tied with ribbons was a favourite departure, and Sheraton was successful in introducing this design. He completely altered the legs of his chairs, making them straight or tapering, often exquisitely reeded ; sometimes so-called thimble toes form the finish to the delicate legs, and later turned legs and arm posts are seen on chairs and settees, especially those made after 1735. Hepplewhite made chairs for many purposes, some of his hall chairs with oval shields and classic urns being exceedingly attractive. As a rough guide to collectors, it may be stated that the designs as standardised in " The Guide," published after Hepplewhite's death, measure about two inches less in width, and stand lower in the back than those made during Hepplewhite's earlier career. As a rule, Hepplewhite chairs are a little longer in the legs than those of Chippendale. Indeed, some appear to be much too high for the low backs, which look rather dwarfed in consequence.

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