THE SHAKESPEARE OF ENGLISH FURNITURE
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Chippendale Senior, here we discuss the life and legacy of the legendary cabinet-maker and furniture designer.
Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was the most famous and influential furniture-maker Britain has ever produced. He rose from humble origins in the town of Otley, Yorkshire to become furniture-maker to some of the most powerful and influential people of his day – aristocrats, politicians, businessmen, actors and royalty. His revolutionary book of designs, first published in 1754, made him famous throughout Europe and North America, and in the 19th and 20th centuries the name ‘Chippendale’ became a byword for fine quality furniture-making all over the world.
Thomas Chippendale senior (he went on to call his eldest son Thomas) was baptised in Otley parish church on 5th June 1718. His family had long been involved in the wood-working and timber trades and he probably received a practical apprenticeship from his father. He may well have had further training with Richard Wood, the leading furniture maker in York, before moving to London. In 1748, he married a Catherine Redshaw and in due course they had nine children.
Chippendale probably worked as a journeyman cabinet-maker and freelance designer before embarking on his great project, the publication of his lavish book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. This appeared in 1754 and illustrated 161 engraved plates of ‘Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste’. It was almost immediately sold out and was reprinted in a second edition the following year. A third edition, with many new plates, appeared in 1762.
Chippendale’s book was the first attempt in England to publish a publication of designs for furniture as a means of self-promotion. The result was that his business immediately became known to a wide circle of potential clients and for ever afterwards his name became a by-word for a distinctive rococo style.
Chippendale described himself as an ‘upholder’ which implied that he was able to supply his clients with furnishings of every kind. In effect, he was an entrepreneur running a large business employing perhaps as many as 50 in-house craftsmen and any number of out-workers. He was the artistic director of the enterprise, supervising the workforce and its production, appeasing clients and always keeping one step ahead of new fashions. Ideally, he preferred long-running commissions to equip large country or town houses from attic to basement, with grand pieces for the reception rooms (including wallpapers and textiles), ‘neat but substantially good’ items for the family rooms, and utilitarian objects for the servants. A number of houses bear witness to this practice to this day, for example Harewood House and Nostell Priory.
‘Chippendale also produced off-the-peg items for a more casual customer, such as his hexagonal tea tables sold at 4 guineas each’
But Chippendale also supplied ‘off the peg’ items to casual customers; he seems to have had a good line, for example, in elegant hexagonal tea or work tables selling at about four guineas each. He also had an important wholesale business importing large sheets of French mirror glass, by far the most expensive item in any furnishing scheme. He was even prepared to act as an undertaker for valued clients.
Research to date has identified over seventy of Chippendale’s clients, their patronage being documented in invoices, payments in account books and entries in bank ledgers. About 600 pieces of furniture can be attributed to his workshop on the basis of documentation or convincing stylistic affinities, substantially more than any of his contemporaries or rivals. The development of his style can be traced from the Director-style rococo furniture made for Dumfries House (late 1750s), through the early Adam-inspired pieces for Sir Laurence Dundas (early-mid 1760s), to the mature neo-Classicism of Harewood (early 1770s), leading ultimately to the super-refined elegance of Burton Constable (late 1770s).
By this date, it seems likely that his son, Thomas Chippendale junior, was in control of the artistic side of the business. Chippendale senior died in 1778, having re-married the previous year and fathered another two children.
The market for pieces by or firmly attributed to the great man has remained strong. A small chest might make in the low thousands of pounds, while the grandest pieces have been sold for many millions of pounds.
‘Dumfries House and its contents was sold for £45 million in 2007 by the Marquess of Bute — advised by Christie’s — to the Dumfries House Trust after the generous intervention of HRH The Prince of Wales and a number of other benefactors. While the house and land was valuable, the majority of the value was in the contents.
In 2008 Christie’s broke the world auction record for Chippendale four times in one sale. All of the pieces of English furniture sold for in excess of £2 million are by Thomas Chippendale.
On 5 July, Christie’s landmark sale Thomas Chippendale 300 Years will celebrate the genius of Chippendale’s designs and the perfection of his execution, in the 300th anniversary year of his birth. Taking place during Christie’s Classic Week, the dedicated London auction will present 22 lots with estimates ranging from £5,000 to £5 million. A selection of works will be on public view at Christie’s London headquarters until 25 May, with the full pre-sale exhibition opening from 30 June to 5 July.
Collectively, the sale encompasses some of the grandest pieces of 18th century furniture ever created, including Sir Rowland Winn’s Commode (estimate: £3-5million) and The Dundas Sofas (each sofa with an estimate of £2-3million). Remembered as ‘The Shakespeare of English Furniture makers’, Chippendale was the master of many mediums. This is highlighted by the breadth of works being offered, including his game-changing book which made his name The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, first published in 1754, which astutely promoted his designs to the most affluent potential clients of the day (the expanded 1762 3rd edition, estimate: £5,000-8,000) alongside works executed in giltwood, mahogany, marquetry and lacquer.
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