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Characteristics Of Hepplewhite's Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

As it has been seen, the most notable feature in the chairs made by Hepplewhite when he was advancing from the models he had before him, as given in earlier and con-temporary schools of design, was their lessened dimensions. The materials used by makers are always important, because they indicate their motive in ornament, and some-times influence the style of their work. Mahogany was used by Hepplewhite just as it had been by Chippendale and his contemporaries, and his mahogany chairs were enriched with fancy veneers. Satin-wood, however, was much used also for inlays and additional ornament. It has been pointed out by Mr Wheeler in his book on " Old English Furniture that Robert Adam used " a fine dark deep-toned old Spanish mahogany, yielding with age a nice patina," whereas Hepplewhite used " the light-toned mahogany," which was then being employed by many others, and yet Hepplewhite received his best inspirations from Robert Adam !

The hand-painted furniture mentioned in " The Guide " as japanning (not to be confused with lacquers in imitation of the ornamental lacquers then being imported into this country) is characteristic of Hepplewhite, and although the popularity of that particular finish came later on, towards the close of the eighteenth century, it is more than probable that that characteristic style was made before his death.

The methods of working, as well as the materials used and the finishes imparted, are worthy of special note when forming an opinion of the characteristics of any style pronounced or only in an embryo state, and some one of the characteristics which distinguish any style are generally observable in all the pieces of furniture designed at that particular time. In Hepplewhite's furniture we notice the grooving and reeding plane in constant use. Indeed, at that period a marked change was creeping over production, in that mechanical aids and labour-saving tools and machines were being gradually brought into the workshop, and economic conditions of working are observable in much of the work carried out. The difference in style between the designs of Hepplewhite and Robert Adam, and those of Thomas Chippendale, make this possible, for in Chippendale's day the carver's tool worked by hand was the chief instrument. Hepplewhite's top rails and side posts were deeply channelled, and beaded patterns were introduced.

Reference has already been made to the shield and heart-shaped backs which are so characteristic of Hepplewhite's designs. To these, however, must be added the wheel-back and other curious patterns in which ovals and squares are noticeable. In some of the designs there are beautiful urns and conventional foliage. Little medallions are fashioned in the splat, the Prince of Wales' feathers and wheat-ears are seen in many of the designs, and these took the place of Chippendale's shells.

The beautiful tables which Hepplewhite made show traces of his handiwork ; there are quite a number of examples illustrated in " The Guide," especially those charming ornamental tables with inlaid tops and bracket supports. There are also semicircular tables with folding flaps of equal size, the centre table being supported by three fly legs. These tables when joined make up the dining-tables Hepplewhite so carefully planned, and so satisfactorily carried out. To these must be added claw dining-tables, also joined together by clasps and slides.

Hepplewhite designed many oval and oblong pier-glasses, mostly of equal width to the pier-table, for which they were originally intended, the one being used in con-junction with the other. Such frames are of gilded wood, but sometimes the leaf ornaments are made of plaster, strongly wired together at the back, the whole being after-wards gilt.

The ornament used at any period—especially if it is a distinctive ornament or badge—is always a useful guide to the prevailing influence at work, operating upon the design of craftsmen. In Hepplewhite's frame there are usually leaf scrolls, chains of husks, and often an urn, or perchance an eagle. As time went on girandoles became more fantastic in shape, the chief departure in Hepplewhite's time being the introduction of white or coloured cut glass.

The patronage bestowed upon Hepplewhite by the then Prince of Wales accounts for the somewhat obsequious use of the plumes or Prince of Wales' feathers in many of his designs, especially in chair backs and the backs of settees. Hepplewhite made many richly upholstered easy chairs, some of the more luxurious being commonly called " forty wink " chairs. His chief successes, however, were in his very beautiful inlaid suites, and in his decorative settees —a marked departure was the sofa which Hepplewhite evolved from the French sofa-bed. The dainty furniture this clever cabinet-maker made was so well suited to ladies' rooms that its success was well assured, and as the parlour became a fashionable rendezvous for ladies and their admirers, the charming inlays and light decorative furniture of Hepplewhite, and those who followed his style, became the rage. In a similar way this famous maker designed numerous dainty screens and accessories for parlour and boudoir, as well as for the retiring chamber.

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