The Mysterious Mr. Chippendale

Image of the Statue of Thomas Chippendale in Otley, Yorkshire. © Image copyright Mick Melvin

Thomas Chippendale – arguably the most well-known and influential cabinetmaker of the 18th century – was born in Yorkshire in 1718 but little is known about the man himself despite his fame. Trained by his father John and the aptly name Richard Wood in carpentry and furniture making, he eventually moved to London in 1749.

Chippendale set up his business near Covent Garden and started as a journeyman cabinetmaker, working for other cabinet-makers in their workshops on a project basis. Covent Garden and its environs was the centre for furniture making and coach-building in London at the time, as well as a fashionable shopping district.

Balthazar Nebot’s painting of Covent Garden market, 1737 exhibited at the Tate Britain. © Tate, London 2012

From 1754 until 1813 the business operated successfully from 60-62 St Martin’s Lane with a wealth of aristocratic and royal clients who employed Chippendale not just as a furniture designer and maker but often also as an interior designer, advising on paint colours, draperies, upholstery and furniture.

St Martin’s Lane was a hotbed for art and design practice, allowing for a quick translation of innovation in design to fashions in furnishings. In 1735 William Hogarth had set up his ‘St. Martin’s Lane Academy’ from Slaughter’s Coffee House (or affectionately known as ‘Old Slaughter’s’). Here, a revolutionary Rococo set of designers formulated their artistic ideas and created the precursor of the Royal Academy.

Chippendale’s flair for furniture design and interior design is presented in his books of designs, known commonly as The Director but fully titled as The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director’ . This publication was ground breaking in that it was the first time a cabinetmaker had published a book of his own designs. Its publication in 1754 marked Chippendales’ move from journeyman to a furniture maker with his own premises.

The frontispiece and dedication page of The Director, 1754

It was so popular that a second edition came out a year after its initial publication in 1754 and a revised edition was published in 1762 with new designs, showing a move from the earlier fashionable Rococo style to the Neo-Classical tastes which were to dominate the last quarter of the 18th century. The book became a roaring success and influenced cabinetmakers throughout Europe. ‘Chippendale’ furniture can be found emerging in countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Spain and even America. It is notable that both Catherine the Great and even Louis XVI had copies of the book in their libraries.

A fine Chippendale bookcase made for Dumfries House available in our Replica Collection. This bookcase shows the very elegant combination of Chinoiserie, Gothic and Rococo styles. (RE63003)

Seated in Rococo Splendour

A beautiful replica of an early Chippendale chair in the Rococo taste. This style of chair now carries the Chippendale moniker worldwide and many variants of this design are featured in The Director

A page of chair designs from the The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, 1754.

A less well known fact is that in the 1770s his son, the second Thomas Chippendale, took over much of that artistic and management side of the business. In 1777 Thomas Senior retired and Thomas Junior took over the running of the firm in earnest. Thomas Junior had been apprenticed by his father, been given a formal education in draughtsmanship and was therefore eminently suited to take over the reins. After his father’s death in 1778 he published a book of Neo-Classical designs of ornament, the style of furniture and decoration most fashionable at the time and well known through the architecture and designs of Robert and James Adam. These heavyweights of interior design and architecture for the Neo-Classical period in England has been collaborating with the Chippendale firm on several projects. Although the Chippendale firm was dissolved in 1813 and had to relinquish the premises in St Martin’s Lane, Thomas Chippendale Junior continued to provide furniture to important clients until 1820, predominantly in the Neo-Classical and more eclectic Regency tastes.

A portrait of Thomas Chippendale (most likely Thomas Chippendale the Younger). Image Courtesy of The Chippendale Society

The Thomas Chippendales spanned some of the most important years of British furniture making and design and were influential throughout the so called ‘Golden Age’ of British furniture, working and innovating in styles as varied as the ‘Gothic’, Chinese, Neo-Classical and Regency tastesSinuous Serpentine Chest

A ‘French Commode Table’ from the Director and a serpentine chest from our Replica Collection (RE60010)

See more Chippendale inspired designs by Theodore Alexander here

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