Info Articles > Categories > Art and Culture > History of Furniture Design in the Renaissance > Thomas Chippendale Furniture History

Thomas Chippendale Furniture History


Soon after the second half of the eighteenth century had set in, during the latter days of the second George, and the early part of his successor's long reign, there is a distinct change in the design of English decorative furniture.

Sir William Chambers, R.A., an architect, who has left us Somerset House as a lasting monument of his talent, appears to have been the first to impart to the interior decoration, of houses what was termed "the Chinese style," after his visit to China, of which a notice was made in the chapter on Eastern furniture: and as he was considered an "oracle of taste" about this time, his influence was very powerful. Chair backs consequently have the peculiar irregular lattice work which is seen in the fretwork of Chinese and Japanese ornaments, and Pagodas, Chinamen and monsters occur in his designs for cabinets. The overmantel which had hitherto been designed with some architectural pretension, now gave way to the larger mirrors which were introduced by the improved manufacture of plate glass: and the chimney piece became lower. During his travels in Italy, Chambers had found some Italian sculptors, and had brought them to England, to carve in marble his designs; they were generally of a free Italian character, with scrolls of foliage and figure ornaments: but being of stone instead of woodwork, would scarcely belong to our subject, save to indicate the change in fashion of the chimney piece, the vicissitudes of which we have already noticed. Chimney pieces were now no longer specially designed by architects, as part of the interior fittings, but were made and sold with the grates, to suit the taste of the purchaser, often quite irrespective of the rooms for which they were intended. It may be said that Dignity gave way to Elegance.

Robert Adam, having returned from his travels in France and Italy, had designed and built, in conjunction with his brother James, Adelphi Terrace about 1769, and subsequently Portland Place, and other streets and houses of a like character; the furniture being made, under the direction of Robert, to suit the interiors. There is much interest attaching to No. 25, Portland Place, because this was the house built, decorated and furnished by Robert Adam for his own residence, and, fortunately, the chief reception rooms remain to shew the style then in vogue. The brothers Adam introduced into England the application of composition ornaments to woodwork. Festoons of drapery, wreaths of flowers caught up with rams' heads, or of husks tied with a knot of riband, and oval pateroe to mark divisions in a frieze, or to emphasize a break in the design, are ornaments characteristic of what was termed the Adams style.

Robert Adam published between 1778 and 1822 three magnificent volumes, "Works on Architecture." One of these was dedicated to King George III, to whom he was appointed architect. Many of his designs for furniture were carried out by Gillows; there is a good collection of his original drawings in the Soane Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields.

The decoration was generally in low relief, with fluted pilasters, and sometimes a rather stiff Renaissance ornament decorating the panel; the effect was neat and chaste, and a distinct change from the rococo style which had preceded it.

The design of furniture was modified to harmonize with such decoration. The sideboard had a straight and not infrequently a serpentine-shaped front, with square tapering legs, and was surmounted by a pair of urn-shaped knife cases, the wood used being almost invariably mahogany, with the inlay generally of plain flutings relieved by fans or oval pateroe in satin wood.

Pergolesi, Cipriani and Angelica Kaufmann had been attracted to England by the promise of lucrative employment, and not only decorated the panels of ceilings and walls which were enriched by Adams' "compo'" (in reality a revival of the old Italian gesso work), but also painted the ornamental cabinets, occasional tables, and chairs of the time.

Towards the end of the century, satin wood was introduced into England from the East Indies; it became very fashionable, and was a favourite ground-work for decoration, the medallions of figure subjects, generally of cupids, wood-nymphs, or illustrations of mythological fables on darker coloured wood, formed an effective relief to the yellow satin wood. Sometimes the cabinet, writing table, or spindle-legged occasional piece, was made entirely of this wood, having no other decoration beyond the beautiful marking of carefully chosen veneers; sometimes it was banded with tulipwood or harewood (a name given to sycamore artificially stained), and at other times painted as just described. A very beautiful example of this last named treatment is the dressing table in the South Kensington Museum, which we give as an illustration, and which the authorities should not, in the writer's opinion, have labelled "Chippendale."

Besides Chambers, there were several other architects who designed furniture about this time who have been almost forgotten. Abraham Swan, some of whose designs for wooden chimney pieces in the quasi-classic style are given, flourished about 1758. John Carter, who published "Specimens of Ancient Sculpture and Painting"; Nicholas Revitt and James Stewart, who jointly published "Antiquities of Athens" in 1762; J.C. Kraft, who designed in the Adams' style; W. Thomas, M.S.A., and others, have left us many drawings of interior decorations, chiefly chimney pieces and the ornamental architraves of doors, all of them in low relief and of a classical character, as was the fashion towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Josiah Wedgwood, too, turned his attention to the production of plaques in relief, for adaptation to chimney pieces of this character. In a letter written from London to Mr. Bentley, his partner, at the works, he deplores the lack of encouragement in this direction which he received from the architects of his day; he, however, persevered, and by the aid of Flaxman's inimitable artistic skill as a modeller, made several plaques of his beautiful Jasper ware, which were let in to the friezes of chimney pieces, and also into other wood-work. There can be seen in the South Kensington Museum a pair of pedestals of this period (1770-1790) so ornamented.

It is now necessary to consider the work of a group of English cabinet makers, who not only produced a great deal of excellent furniture, but who also published a large number of designs drawn with extreme care and a considerable degree of artistic skill.

The first of these and the best known was Thomas Chippendale, who appears to have succeeded his father, a chair maker, and to have carried on a large and successful business in St. Martin's Lane, which was at this time an important Art centre, and close to the newly-founded Royal Academy.

Chairs With ornament in the Chinese style, by Thomas Chippendale
This valuable work of reference contains over two hundred copperplate engravings of chairs, sofas, bedsteads, mirror frames, girandoles, torchéres or lamp stands, dressing tables, cabinets, chimney pieces, organs, jardiniéres, console tables, brackets, and other useful and decorative articles, of which some examples are given. It will be observed from these, that the designs of Chippendale are very different from those popularly ascribed to him. Indeed, it would appear that this maker has become better known than any other, from the fact of the designs in his book being recently republished in various forms; his popularity has thus been revived, while the names of his contemporaries are forgotten. For the last fifteen or twenty years, therefore, during which time the fashion has obtained of collecting the furniture of a bygone century, almost every cabinet, table, or mirror-frame, presumably of English manufacture, which is slightly removed from the ordinary type of domestic furniture, has been, for want of a better title, called "Chippendale." As a matter of fact, he appears to have adopted from Chambers the fanciful Chinese ornament, and the rococo style of that time, which was superseded some five-and-twenty years later by the quieter and more classic designs of Adam and his contemporaries.

In Chippendale's chairs and console tables, in his state bedsteads and his lamp-stands, one can recognise the broken scrolls and curved lines, so familiar in the bronze mountings of Caffieri. The influence of the change which had occurred in France during the Louis Seize period is equally evident in the Adams' treatment. It was helped forward by the migration into this country of skilled workmen from France, during the troubles of the revolution at the end of the century. Some of Chippendale's designs bear such titles as "French chairs" or a "Bombé-fronted Commode." These might have appeared as illustrations in a contemporary book on French furniture, so identical are they in every detail with the carved woodwork of Picau, of Cauner, or of Nilson, who designed the flamboyant frames of the time of Louis XV. Others have more individuality. In his mirror frames he introduced a peculiar bird with a long snipe-like beak, and rather impossible wings, an imitation of rockwork and dripping water, Chinese figures with pagodas and umbrellas; and sometimes the illustration of Aesop's fables interspersed with scrolls and flowers. By dividing the glass unequally, by the introduction into his design of bevelled pillars with carved capitals and bases, he produced a quaint and pleasing effect, very suitable to the rather effeminate fashion of his time, and in harmony with three-cornered hats, wigs and patches, embroidered waistcoats, knee breeches, silk stockings, and enamelled snuff-boxes. In some of the designs there is a fanciful Gothic, to which he makes special allusion in his preface, as likely to be considered by his critics as impracticable, but which he undertakes to produce, if desired—

"Though some of the profession have been diligent enough to represent them (espescially those after the Gothick and Chinese manner) as so many specious drawings impossible to be worked off by any mechanick whatsoever. I will not scruple to attribute this to Malice, Ignorance, and Inability; and I am confident I can convince all Noblemen, Gentlemen, or others who will honour me with their Commands, that every design in the book can be improved, both as to Beauty and Enrichment, in the execution of it, by

"Their most obedient servant,

"THOMAS CHIPPENDALE."


A Bureau, From Chippendale's "Director."
The reader will notice that in the examples selected from Chippendale's book there are none of those fretwork tables and cabinets which are generally termed "Chippendale." We know, however, that besides the designs which have just been described, and which were intended for gilding, he also made mahogany furniture, and in the "Director" there are drawings of chairs, washstands, writing-tables and cabinets of this description. Fretwork is very rarely seen, but the carved ornament is generally a foliated or curled endive scroll; sometimes the top of a cabinet is finished in the form of a Chinese pagoda. Upon examining a piece of furniture that may reasonably be ascribed to him, it will be found of excellent workmanship, and the wood, always mahogany without any inlay, is richly marked, shewing a careful selection of material.

The chairs of Chippendale and his school are very characteristic. If the outline of the back of some of them be compared with the stuffed back of the chair from Hardwick Hall (illustrated in Chap. IV.) it will be seen that the same lines occur, but instead of the frame of the back being covered with silk, tapestry, or other material—as in William III.'s time—Chippendale's are cut open into fanciful patterns; and in his more highly ornate work, the twisted ribands of his design are scarcely to be reconciled with the use for which a dining room chair is intended. The well-moulded sweep of his lines, however, counterbalances this defect to some extent, and a good Chippendale mahogany chair will ever be an elegant and graceful article of furniture.

One of the most graceful chairs of about the middle of the century, in the style of Chippendale's best productions, is the Master's Chair in the Hall of the Barbers' Company. Carved in rich Spanish mahogany, and upholstered in morocco leather, the ornament consists of scrolls and cornucopiæ, with flowers charmingly disposed, the arms and motto of the Company being introduced. Unfortunately, there is no certain record as to the designer and maker of this beautiful chair, and it is to be regretted that the date (1865), the year when the Hall was redecorated, should have been placed in prominent gold letters on this interesting relic of a past century.

Clock Case by Chippendale
Apart from the several books of design noticed in this chapter, there were published two editions of a work, undated, containing many of the drawings found in Chippendale's book. This book was entitled, "Upwards of One Hundred New and Genteel Designs, being all the most approved patterns of household furniture in the French taste. By a Society of Upholders and Cabinet makers." It is probable that Chippendale was a member of this Society, and that some of the designs were his, but that he severed himself from it and published his own book, preferring to advance his individual reputation. The "sideboard" which one so generally hears called "Chippendale" scarcely existed in his time. If it did, it must have been quite at the end of his career. There were side tables, sometimes called "Side-Boards," but they contained neither cellaret nor cupboard: only a drawer for table linen.

The names of two designers and makers of mahogany ornamental furniture, which deserve to be remembered equally with Chippendale, are those of W. Ince and J. Mayhew, who were partners in business in Broad Street, Golden Square, and contemporary with him. They also published a book of designs which is alluded to by Thomas Sheraton in the preface to his "Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book," published in 1793. A few examples from Ince and Mayhew's "Cabinet Maker's Real Friend and Companion" are given, from which it is evident that, without any distinguishing brand, or without the identification of the furniture with the designs, it is difficult to distinguish between the work of these contemporary makers.

It is, however, noticeable after careful comparison of the work of Chippendale with that of Ince and Mayhew, that the furniture designed and made by the latter has many more of the characteristic details and ornaments which are generally looked upon as denoting the work of Chippendale; for instance, the fretwork ornaments finished by the carver, and then applied to the plain mahogany, the open-work scroll-shaped backs to encoignures or china shelves, and the carved Chinaman with the pagoda. Some of the frames of chimney glasses and pictures made by Ince and Mayhew are almost identical with those of Chippendale.

Other well known designers and manufacturers of this time were Hepplewhite, who published a book of designs very similar to those of his contemporaries, and Matthias Lock, some of whose original drawings were on view in the Exhibition of 1862, and had interesting memoranda attached, giving the names of his workmen and the wages paid: from these it appears that five shillings a day was at that time sufficient remuneration for a skilful wood carver.

Another good designer and maker of much excellent furniture of this time was "Shearer," who has been unnoticed by nearly all writers on the subject. In an old book of designs in the author's possession, "Shearer delin" and "published according to Act of Parliament, 1788," appears underneath the representations of sideboards, tables, bookcases, dressing tables, which are very similar in every way to those of Sheraton, his contemporary.

A copy of Hepplewhite's book, in the author's possession (published in 1789), contains 300 designs "of every article of household furniture in the newest and most approved taste," and it is worth while to quote from his preface to illustrate the high esteem in which English cabinet work was held at this time.

China Shelves, Designed by W. Ince. (Reproduced by Photography from an old Print in the Author's Possession.)
Girandoles and Pier Table, Designed by W. Thomas, Architect, 1783. (Reproduced by Photography from an old Print in the Author's possession.)
"English taste and workmanship have of late years been much sought for by surrounding nations; and the mutability of all things, but more especially of fashions, has rendered the labours of our predecessors in this line of little use; nay, in this day can only tend to mislead those foreigners who seek a knowledge of English taste in the various articles of household furniture."

In some of Hepplewhite's chairs as in those of Sheraton, one may fancy one sees evidence of the squabbles of two fashionable factions of this time, "the Court party" and the "Prince's party," the latter having the well known Prince of Wales' plumes very prominent, and forming the ornamental support of the back of the chair. Another noticeable enrichment is the carving of wheat ears on the shield shape backs of the chairs.

"The plan of a room shewing the proper distribution of the furniture," appears on p. 193 to give an idea of the fashion of the day; it is evident from the large looking glass which overhangs the sideboard that the fashion had now set in to use these mirrors. Some thirty or forty year later this mirror became part of the sideboard, and in some large and pretentious designs which we have seen, the sideboard itself was little better than a support for a huge glass in a heavily carved frame.

The dining tables of this period deserve a passing notice as a step in the development of that important member of our "Lares and Penates." What was and is still called the "pillar and claw" table, came into fashion towards the end of last century. It consisted of a round or square top supported by an upright cylinder, which rested on a plinth having three, or sometimes four, feet carved as claws. In order to extend these tables for a larger number of guests, an arrangement was made for placing several together. When apart, they served as pier or side tables, and some of these—the two end ones, being semi-circular—may still be found in some of our old inns.

Designs of Furniture
It was not until 1800 that Richard Gillow, of the well-known firm in Oxford Street, invented and patented the convenient telescopic contrivance which, with slight improvements, has given us the table of the present day. The term still used by auctioneers in describing a modern extending table as "a set of dining tables," is, probably, a survival of the older method of providing for a dinner party. Gillow's patent is described as "an improvement in the method of constructing dining and other tables calculated to reduce the number of legs, pillars and claws, and to facilitate and render easy, their enlargement and reduction."

As an interesting link between the present and the past it may be useful here to introduce a slight notice of this well-known firm of furniture manufacturers, for which the writer is indebted to Mr. Clarke, one of the present partners of Gillows. "We have an unbroken record of books dating from 1724, but we existed long anterior to this: all records were destroyed during the Scottish Rebellion in 1745." The house originated in Lancaster, which was then the chief port in the north, Liverpool not being in existence at the time, and Gillows exported furniture largely to the West Indies, importing rum as payment, for which privilege they held a special charter. The house opened in London in 1765, and for some time the Lancaster books bore the heading and inscription, "Adventure to London." On the architect's plans for the premises now so well-known in Oxford Street, occur these words, "This is the way to Uxbridge." Mr. Clarke's information may be supplemented by adding that from Dr. Gillow, whom the writer had the pleasure of meeting some years ago, and was the thirteenth child of the Richard Gillow before mentioned; he learnt that this same Richard Gillow retired in 1830, and died as late as 1866 at the age of 90. Dowbiggin, founder of the firm of Holland and Sons, was an apprentice to Richard Gillow.

Mahogany may be said to have come into general use subsequent to 1720, and its introduction is asserted to have been due to the tenacity of purpose of a Dr. Gibbon, whose wife wanted a candle box, an article of common domestic use of the time. The Doctor, who had laid by in the garden of his house in King Street, Covent Garden, some planks sent to him by his brother, a West Indian captain, asked the joiner to use a part of the wood for this purpose; it was found too tough and hard for the tools of the period, but the Doctor was not to be thwarted, and insisted on harder-tempered tools being found, and the task completed; the result was the production of a candle box which was admired by every one. He then ordered a bureau of the same material, and when it was finished invited his friends to see the new work; amongst others, the Duchess of Buckingham begged a small piece of the precious wood, and it soon became the fashion. On account of its toughness, and peculiarity of grain, it was capable of treatment impossible with oak, and the high polish it took by oil and rubbing (not French polish, a later invention), caused it to come into great request. The term "putting one's knees under a friend's mahogany," probably dates from about this time.

The fashion had now changed; instead of the rococo or rock work (literally rock-scroll) and shell (rocquaille et cocquaille) ornament, which had gone out, a simpler and more severe taste had come in. In Sheraton's cabinets, chairs, writing tables, and occasional pieces we have therefore no longer the cabriole leg or the carved ornament; but, as in the case of the brothers Adam, and the furniture designed by them for such houses as those in Portland Place, we have now square tapering legs, severe lines, and quiet ornament. Sheraton trusted almost entirely for decoration to his marqueterie. Some of this is very delicate and of excellent workmanship. He introduced occasionally animals with foliated extremities into his scrolls, and he also inlaid marqueterie trophies of musical instruments; but as a rule the decoration was in wreaths of flowers, husks, or drapery, in strict adherence to the fashion of the decorations to which allusion has been made. A characteristic feature of his cabinets was the swan-necked pediment surmounting the cornice, being a revival of an ornament fashionable during Queen Anne's reign. It was then chiefly found in stone, marble, or cut brickwork, but subsequently became prevalent in inlaid woodwork.

Chairs by Sheraton
Sheraton was apparently a man very well educated for his time, whether self taught or not one cannot say; but that he was an excellent draughtsman, and had a complete knowledge of geometry, is evident from the wonderful drawings in his book, and the careful though rather verbose directions he gives for perspective drawing. Many of his numerous designs for furniture and ornamental items, are drawn to a scale with the geometrical nicety of an engineer's or architect's plan: he has drawn in elevation, plan, and minute detail, each of the five architectural orders.

Although this chapter is somewhat long, on account of the endeavour to give more detailed information about English furniture of the latter half of last century, than of some other periods, in consequence of the prevailing taste for our National manufacture of this time, still, in concluding it, a few remarks about the "Sideboard" may be allowed.

The changes in form and fashion of this important article of domestic furniture are interesting, and to explain them a slight retrospect is necessary. The word "Buffet," sometimes translated "Sideboard," which was used to describe continental pieces of furniture of the 15th and 16th centuries, does not designate our Sideboard, which may be said to have been introduced by William III.; and of which kind there is a fair specimen in the South Kensington Museum; an illustration of it has been given in the chapter dealing with that period.

The term "stately sideboard" occurs in Milton's "Paradise Regained," which was published in 1671, and Dryden, in his translation of Juvenal, published in 1693, when contrasting the furniture of the classical period of which he was writing with that of his own time, uses the following line:—

"No sideboards then with gilded plate were dressed."

The fashion in those days of having symmetrical doors in a room, that is, false doors to correspond with the door used for exit, which one still finds in many old houses in the neighbourhood of Portland Place, and particularly in the palaces of St. James' and of Kensington, enabled our ancestors to have good cupboards for the storage of glass, crockery, and reserve wine. After the middle of the eighteenth century, however, these extra doors and the enclosed cupboard gradually disappeared, and soon after the mahogany side table came into fashion it became the custom to supplement this article of furniture by a pedestal cupboard on either side (instead of the cupboards alluded to), one for hot plates and the other for wine. Then, as the thin legs gave the table rather a lanky appearance, the garde de vin, or cellaret, was added in the form of an oval tub of mahogany with bands of brass, sometimes raised on low feet with castors for convenience, which was used as a wine cooler. A pair of urn-shaped mahogany vases stood on the pedestals, and these contained—the one hot water for the servants' use in washing the knives, forks and spoons, which being then much more valuable were limited in quantity, and the other held iced water for the guests' use.

A brass rail at the back of the side table with ornamental pillars and branches for candles was used, partly to enrich the furniture, and partly to form a support to the handsome pair of knife and spoon cases, which completed the garniture of a gentleman's sideboard of this period.

A distinguishing feature of English furniture of the last century was the partiality for secret drawers and contrivances for hiding away papers or valued articles; and in old secretaires and writing tables we find a great many ingenious designs which remind us of the days when there were but few banks, and people kept money and deeds in their own custody.