1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chippendale, Thomas

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CHIPPENDALE, THOMAS (d. 1779), the most famous of English cabinetmakers. The materials for the biography of Chippendale are exceedingly scanty, but he is known to have been the son of Thomas Chippendale I., and is believed to have been the father of Thomas Chippendale III. His father was a cabinetmaker and wood-carver of considerable repute in Worcester towards the beginning of the 18th century, and possibly he originated some of the forms which became characteristic of his son’s work. Thus a set of chairs and settees was made, apparently at Worcester, for the family of Bury of Knateshill, at a period when the great cabinetmaker could have been no more than a boy, which are practically identical with much of the work that was being turned out of the family factory as late as the ’sixties of the 18th century. Side by side with the Queen Anne or early Georgian feeling of the first quarter of the 18th century we find the interlaced splats and various other details which marked the Chippendale style. By 1727 the elder Chippendale and his son had removed to London, and at the end of 1749 the younger man—his father was probably then dead—established himself in Conduit Street, Long Acre, whence in 1753 he removed to No. 60 St Martin’s Lane, which with the addition of the adjoining three houses remained his factory for the rest of his life. In 1755 his workshops were burned down; in 1760 he was elected a member of the Society of Arts; in 1766 his partnership with James Ranni was dissolved by the latter’s death.

It has always been exceedingly difficult to distinguish the work executed in Chippendale’s factory and under his own eye from that of the many copyists and adapters who throughout the second half of the 18th century—the golden age of English furniture—plundered remorselessly. Apart from his published designs, many of which were probably never made up, we have to depend upon the very few instances in which his original accounts enable us to earmark work which was unquestionably his. For Claydon House, the seat of the Verneys in Buckinghamshire, he executed much decorative work, and the best judges are satisfied that the Chinese bedroom there was designed by him. At Harewood House, the seat of the earl of Harewood in Yorkshire, we are on firmer ground. The house was furnished between 1765 and 1771, and both Robert Adam and Chippendale were employed upon it. Indeed, there is unmistakable evidence to show that certain work, so closely characteristic of the Adams that it might have been assigned to them without hesitation, was actually produced by Chippendale. This may be another of the many indications that Chippendale was himself an imitator, or it may be that Adam, as architect, prescribed designs which Chippendale’s cabinetmakers and carvers executed. Chippendale’s bills for this Adam work are still preserved. Stourhead, the famous house of the Hoares in Wiltshire, contains much undoubted Chippendale furniture, which may, however, be the work of Thomas Chippendale III.; at Rowton Castle, Shropshire, Chippendale’s bills as well as his works still exist.

Our other main source of information is The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, which was published by Thomas Chippendale in 1754. This book, the most important collection of furniture designs issued up to that time in England, contains one hundred and sixty engraved plates, and the list of subscribers indicates that the author had acquired a large and distinguished body of customers. The book is of folio size; there was a second edition in 1759, and a third in 1762.

In the rather bombastic introduction Chippendale says that he has been encouraged to produce the book “by persons of distinction and taste, who have regretted that an art capable of so much perfection and refinement should be executed with so little propriety and elegance.” He has some severe remarks upon critics, from which we may assume that he had already suffered at their hands. Perhaps, indeed, Chippendale may have been hinted at in the caustic remarks of Isaac Ware, surveyor to the king, who bewailed that it was the misfortune of the world in his day “to see an unmeaning scrawl of C’s inverted and looped together, taking the place of Greek and Roman elegance even in our most expensive decorations. It is called French, and let them have the praise of it! The Gothic shaft and Chinese bell are not beyond nor below it in poorness of imitation.” It is the more likely that these barbs were intended for Chippendale, since he was guilty not only of many essays in Gothic, but of a vast amount of work in the Chinese fashion, as well as in the flamboyant style of Louis XV. The Director contains examples of each of the manners which aroused the scorn of the king’s surveyor. Chippendale has even shared with Sir William Chambers the obloquy of introducing the Chinese style, but he appears to have done nothing worse than “conquer,” as Alexandre Dumas used to call it, the ideas of other people. Nor would it be fair to the man who, whatever his occasional extravagances and absurdities, was yet a great designer and a great transmuter, to pretend that all his Chinese designs were contemptible. Many of them, with their geometrical lattice-work and carved tracery, are distinctly elegant and effective. Occasionally we find in one piece of furniture a combination of the three styles which Chippendale most affected at different periods—Louis XV., Chinese and Gothic—and it cannot honestly be said that the result is as incongruous as might have been expected. Some of his most elegant and attractive work is derived directly from the French, and we cannot doubt that the inspiration of his famous ribbon-backed chair came directly from some of the more artistic performances in rococo.

The primary characteristic of his work is solidity, but it is a solidity which rarely becomes heaviness. Even in his most lightsome efforts, such as the ribbon-backed chair, construction is always the first consideration. It is here perhaps that he differs most materially from his great successor Sheraton, whose ideas of construction were eccentric in the extreme. It is indeed in the chair that Chippendale is seen at his best and most characteristic. From his hand, or his pencil, we have a great variety of chairs, which, although differing extensively in detail, may be roughly arranged in three or four groups, which it would sometimes be rash to attempt to date. He introduced the cabriole leg, which, despite its antiquity, came immediately from Holland; the claw and ball foot of ancient Oriental use; the straight, square, uncompromising early Georgian leg; the carved lattice-work Chinese leg; the pseudo-Chinese leg; the fretwork leg, which was supposed to be in the best Gothic taste; the inelegant rococo leg with the curled or hoofed foot; and even occasionally the spade foot, which is supposed to be characteristic of the somewhat later style of Hepplewhite. His chair-backs were very various. His efforts in Gothic were sometimes highly successful; often they took the form of the tracery of a church window, or even of an ovalled rose window. His Chinese backs were distinctly geometrical, and from them he would seem to have derived some of the inspiration for the frets of the glazed book-cases and cabinets which were among his most agreeable work. The most attractive feature of Chippendale’s most artistic chairs—those which, originally derived from Louis Quinze models, were deprived of their rococo extravagances—is the back, which, speaking generally, is the most elegant and pleasing thing that has ever been done in furniture. He took the old solid or slightly pierced back, and cut it up into a light openwork design exquisitely carved—for Chippendale was a carver before everything—in a vast variety of designs ranging from the elaborate and extremely elegant, if much criticized, ribbon back, to a comparatively plain but highly effective splat. His armchairs, however, often had solid or stuffed backs. Next to his chairs Chippendale was most successful with settees, which almost invariably took the shape of two or three conjoined chairs, the arms, backs and legs identical with those which he used for single seats. He was likewise a prolific designer and maker of book-cases, cabinets and escritoires with doors glazed with fretwork divisions. Some of those which he executed in the style which in his day passed for Gothic are exceedingly handsome and effective. We have, too, from his hand many cases for long clocks, and a great number of tables, some of them with a remarkable degree of Gallic grace. He was especially successful in designing small tables with fretwork galleries for the display of china. His mirrors, which were often in the Chinese taste or extravagantly rococo, are remarkable and characteristic. In his day the cabinetmaker still had opportunities for designing and constructing the four-post bedstead, and some of Chippendale’s most graceful work was lavished upon the woodwork of the lighter, more refined and less monumental four-poster, which, thanks in some degree to his initiative, took the place of the massive Tudor and the funereally hung Jacobean bed. From an organ case to a washhand-stand, indeed, no piece of domestic furniture came amiss to this astonishing man, and if sometimes he was extravagant, grotesque or even puerile, his level of achievement is on the whole exceedingly high.

Since the revival of interest in his work he has often been criticized with considerable asperity, but not always justly. Chippendale’s work has stood the supreme test of posterity more completely than that of any of his rivals or successors; and, unlike many men of genius, we know him to have been warmly appreciated in his lifetime. He was at once an artist and a prosperous man of business. His claims to distinction are summed up in the fact that his name has by general consent been attached to the most splendid period of English furniture.

Chippendale was buried on the 13th of November 1779, apparently at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and administration of his intestate estate was granted to his widow Elizabeth. He left four children, Thomas Chippendale III., John, Charles and Mary. He was one of the assignees in bankruptcy of the notorious Theresa Cornelys of Soho Square, of whom we read in Casanova and other scandalous chronicles of the time. Thomas Chippendale III. succeeded to the business of his father and grandfather, and for some years the firm traded under the style of Chippendale & Haig. The factory remained in St Martin’s Lane, but in 1814 an additional shop was opened at No. 57 Haymarket, whence it was in 1821 removed to 42 Jermyn Street. Like his father, Thomas Chippendale III. was a member of the Society of Arts; and he is known to have exhibited five pictures at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1801. He died at the end of 1822 or the beginning of 1823.  (J. P.-B.)