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Chippendale–
The Royalty of Antique Furniture

by Bob Brooke

The Early Years
Fine Woods Make the Difference
Chippendale's Signature Form--The Cabriole Leg
Chinese Chippendale
What Collectors Should Look For
Noted Makers of Chippendale Furniture
Reproductions
High Prices for Quality

Of all the names associated with antique furniture, Chippendale is the most well known. The Chippendale style dominated American furniture until the 1770s. Known by its exquisite and extensive carving, it takes its name from Thomas Chippendale, an 18th century cabinetmaker, whose furnishings reflected popular English tastes of the period incorporating English, Gothic, and Chinese motifs.

Chippendale's early career remains a mystery. Born in 1718 at Otley in West Yorkshire, England, son of carpenter John Chippendale, and served his apprenticeship there. He had a great head for business and as a social climber and self-publicist, he realized the importance of public relations and advertising. In spite of his membership of the Society of Arts and his fashionable wedding at St. George's Chapel, Society never accepted him, except in his trade and professional capacity.

The Early Years
But in 1754, Mr. Chippendale, as he was known in London, published his detailed collection, Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, a portfolio of fashionable English furniture design templates and one of the first furniture design books. In it Chippendale adapted existing design styles to the fashion of the mid-18th century. Both makers and sellers of furniture rushed to purchase it, making Chippendale a household name. And so pervasive was the influence of his book that the name of Chippendale is often indiscriminately applied to all mid-18th century furniture.

Chippendale created his Director as a catalogue from which his wealthy patrons could choose particular elements for their furniture, which would then be custom made for them in his workshop. It contained 161 plates, reflecting many elements of the Rococo, Chinese, Gothic and Neoclassical styles.

Publication of the Director clearly had a stimulating effect on Chippendale’s career since all his known commissions date from after its publication. However, the Chippendale style didn’t remain within the confines of the Chippendale workshops very long. So popular were the designs with the wealthy class that soon other furniture makers were using Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director as a pattern book for their shops, too.

In 1754, the same year as the publication of his Director, Chippendale moved to spacious premises in the fashionable paved thoroughfare of St. Martin’s Lane which his firm occupied for the next 60 years. He then formed a partnership with James Rannie, a Scottish merchant, who injected capital into the business. They employed between 40 and 50 artisans. And while the notes in his Director showed Chippendale possessed a sound practical knowledge of timbers and craftsmanship, he most likely, at this stage in his career, would have been responsible for design and management, instead of working at the bench.

A versatile man, he was willing to design and supply wallpapers, carpets, fire grates, decorative ormolu, chimney pieces, even complete room schemes, in addition to furniture. As well as equipping State Apartments with luxurious ensembles, his firm regularly supplied routine articles for the servants’ rooms and domestic offices. He offered a complete house furnishing service, undertook repairs, removals, hired out furniture, compiled inventories and was even prepared to direct and furnish funerals for respected customers.

Fine Woods Make the Difference
Chippendale style furniture was generally made of mahogany, imported from the West Indies. Though cabinetmakers occasionally used veneers, they’re not typical of this style. Instead they preferred using solid wood to accommodate the elaborate carving found in this style. And they upholstered the newly introduced camel-back sofas in rich brocades, velvets, and damasks.

While cabinetmakers used Cuban, Dominican and Honduran mahogany during the latter part of the 18th Century, the finest was Cuban, a dense, heavy wood with a close grain. When they carved it, minute white flecks would appear in the wood. Honduran mahogany is lighter in weight and color. The mahoganies from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica fell somewhere between Cuban and Honduran in quality. Flame mahogany refers to the character of the grain, obtained by using the first branch or crotch of the tree. Another much sought-after grain was mottled, often referred to as "plum pudding" mahogany.

Nevertheless, in the Chippendale period in America, Connecticut cabinetmakers used cherry more often than mahogany. During the same period, furniture makers in Bermuda used local cedar which had an orangish hue. Throughout America, furniture makers used softwoods like white pine for the main carcase of furniture, but in England, they favored hardwood such as oak.

By mixing and melding the extravagant Rococo style with the Gothic and Chinese styles, Chippendale came up with a hybrid that displaced the more angular Queen Anne style. From the 1760's, the neoclassical work of architect Robert Adam, with whom he worked on several large projects, influenced him greatly.

Chippendale's Signature Form–The Cabriole Leg
He extensively employed the Queen Anne-style cabriole leg. While there are six different basic Chippendale style legs–the lion’s paw, the ball and claw, the late Chippendale, the Marlborough, the club and the spade–he based three of them on the cabriole shape which is an elegant, serpentine style ending in a distinctive foot. These include the lion’s paw, which ends with a lion paw shaped foot, the club, which is a simple round foot and the ball and claw, which looks like an eagle talon holding a ball. The remaining leg styles are straight–the Marlborough being a plain, square leg, the spade a tapered round leg often with a square or trapezoid foot, and the late Chippendale having a square leg with a square foot. Chippendale’s Gothic and Chinese influenced designs had straight or tapering legs, tracery carving and fret and lattice work.

Block-front furniture–where the center front recedes in a shallow concave curve between slightly convex ends–seems to have been unique to North America. Chippendale never illustrated furniture of this type in his Director. Furniture connoisseurs believe that this style originated the area of Boston, Massachusetts, and assumed a Chippendale character.

Another characteristically American furniture form was the highboy. English cabinetmakers abandoned the chest-on-stand, of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, for the chest-on-chest where the lower section is supported on low bracket feet. Furniture makers supported the highboy, known back then as a high chest of drawers, on high cabriole legs, the top being surmounted by a swan-neck broken pediment sometimes known in America as a "bonnet." The center of the pediment was usually embellished with a cartouche showing the family’s crest, except in American pieces this is smaller. It was customary to display these elaborately carved pieces in the drawing room, even though they were designed to hold personal belongings. The lowboy, or the lower part of the highboy, was usually elaborately embellished with carving and sometimes stood by itself.

Chippendale chairs often exhibit features of Queen Anne or early Georgian furniture. Often, American Chippendale chairs had Queen Anne back-splats or kidney-shaped seats. American cabinetmakers used doweled through tenon construction, even in sophisticated furniture, up to the late 18th century. In England this feature had died out in all but country furniture by the early 18th century. Of course, there are exceptions, so that identification is dependent upon more subtle points such as the less extreme line of the American back leg as compared with the English examples which are less vertical. However, in America, cabriole legs tended to be somewhat curlier than in England.

Chinese Chippendale
Another style of furnishing that’s often associated with the name of Chippendale is the so-called "Chinese Chippendale" or Chinoiserie, which remained immensely popular, especially for bedrooms, despite the rise of Neoclassicism. Japanning, or painted decoration sometimes imitating lacquer, became the last word in chic.

While he based his work upon the general Queen Anne and Georgian characteristics of sober design and thoroughly fine construction, retaining many of the early 18th-century details, Chippendale introduced many other forms. Though collectors identify his name with the extensive variety of chair designs—from geometrical to Chinese, lattice, or sumptuously carved and interlaced forms, his workshop’s output also included desks, mirror frames, hanging bookshelves, settees, china cabinets and bookcases–featuring fretted cornices and latticework glazed doors–and tables with delicately fretted galleries and distinctive cluster-column legs of Gothic inspiration.

What Collectors Should Look For
Many fine pieces of furniture have been attributed to Thomas Chippendale, but verifiable pieces are rare. Chippendale never employed a maker’s mark, so the only method of establishing his authorship is to find one of his original bills, usually preserved among estate papers, or equivalent documentation.

Even when a piece can be attributed with certainty to Chippendale's workshop, it’s impossible to say for certain that he worked on the furniture himself. As the Chippendale firm became successful, his workmen, rather than Chippendale himself, carried out more of the work.

Another feature of 18th century Chippendale furniture was its irregularity. Cabinetmakers did all the work on this furniture by hand, thus it won’t match the exact regularity of machine work. According to John Nye, director of the American furniture department at Sotheby’s in New York, when examining a piece of Chippendale furniture to determine its age, collectors should look at the joinery closely. Hand crafted joints will be slightly irregular and may evidence tool marks, too.

Chair makers created detailed and deeply carved legs with precise joints, as well as stretchers, the horizontal rungs between chair legs for their Chippendale-style chairs. Seats were wood, upholstered or caned in either a rectangular or kidney shape.

Chair backs varied with the intended function of the chair. There were upholstered backs, rail backs, ladder backs, rung backs, splat backs, and carved backs. As with the legs, chair makers carved these deeply, with crisp details and often pierced them.

Noted Makers of Chippendale Furniture
Records dating from before the American Revolution prove that there were many skilled craftsmen in the country. In Boston, for example, there were 150 known cabinetmakers, while Philadelphia had equally as many. In the South, craftsmen-slaves produced good work. It’s not surprising, therefore, to discover that many of the cabinetmakers who produced American Chippendale furniture weren’t of British descent. George Gostelowe who worked in Philadelphia was Swedish while Andrew Gautier was a Huguenot.

Some of the most remarkable makers of Chippendale furniture were Quakers, for example the Goddards and the Townsends of Newport, Rhode Island Island, and William Savery of Philadelphia, Pennyslvania. In the history of American colonial furniture, the Townsends and the Goddards are truly remarkable for the quality of their work and for the number of them of different generations who made furniture–altogether some 20 individuals from three generations of the Townsends, including Christopher and his sons John and Job and his grandsons Job junior and Edmund were well known, while of the Goddards the best known was John.

Reproductions
It was the practice in the mid-18th Century to purchase a finely made piece of furniture or decorative object and then have copies made at a lower price to increase its number. These, as with modern reproductions, of the Chippendale style were often hand carved but don’t have the depth and detail of carving that genuine Chippendale furniture has. Nye recommended that collectors look for evidence of craftsmanship–hand planing, hand sawing, handmade nails, as well as shrinkage in the wood. In addition, reproduction pieces will have been constructed of younger mahogany which isn’t as dense and is grainier than the slow-growth wood used to make 18th-century pieces.

High Prices for Quality
Thomas Chippendale, who’s furniture designs today command stratospheric prices, had to, on more than one occasion, fight for payment on his commissions. Today, collectors should be wary of any piece of Chippendale furniture that doesn’t have a four to six-figure price tag, especially for pieces made in Philadelphia, according to Nye. "If it’s not appropriately priced, the dealer knows that it’s not 18th century," said Nye. "A reputable dealer will give a written guarantee that the piece is authentic and the guarantee will include a detailed description of the piece and its provenance. Watch out for the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ price."

Nye also noted that while the market is strong for exceptional items, many Chippendale pieces are undocumented and unsigned, so collectors need to look at form and aesthetic attributes. "Many American cabinetmakers borrowed liberally from Chippendale’s designs, so their pieces weren’t as pure as English ones," he added.

The Chippendale Society, founded in England in 1963, owns an important collection of furniture and documents, usually on display at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, England.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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