Reassuringly, Thomas Chippendale was not actually the man who gave oiled-up hunks to the women of the world. Instead, he is one of the most recognized names in furniture design and probably the name that best represents the heritage of British design. His contributions to furniture design are heralded even today as many seek out Chippendale-style furnishings to add to their antique collections. Thomas Chippendale was born in Otley, Yorkshire, in 1718, the son of a carpenter.
The exact date of his birth is a mystery, all that is known is that he was baptised on June 5. Like his birth, Chippendale’s early life is lost to us. We do know that he married Catherine Redshaw in 1748 in London and, five years later moved his furniture showrooms and workshop to St. Martin’s Lane where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. His work was influenced by English, French and Chinese furniture design and he created what many consider to be a new style of furniture making.
Chippendale put first gained national attention through his 1754 book entitled Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, which was a compilation of fashionable English furniture design. It was illustrated with examples of the furniture that Chippendale could produce for his clients and was basically a precursor to catalogues as wealthy new clients could see examples of his work in situ surrounded by a plush lifestyle of intricately woven large rugs and fabrics etc, and they could then choose what they would like to have commissioned. The volume was reprinted several times and is considered by many to be the most important collection of furniture designs ever published in England. His influence still survives today.
Chippendale style falls into four basic categories. The more English influenced pieces use motifs of lions, masques, eggs and darts. Chippendale also borrowed from the style of French Louis XV furniture, called rococo, which featured elaborate lines and embellishments. Like, his Chinese style, or Chinoiserie, featured pagodas, bamboo turnings, claw-and-ball feet, intricate latticework and lacquering. He also had a Gothic influenced style that contained pointed arches, quatrefoils and fret-worked legs.
Finding genuine Chippendale furniture can prove quite difficult. Many fine pieces of furniture have been attributed to his workshop, but verifiable pieces are rare. His designs were widely copied, and his Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director was used heavily by other makers in both England and North America.
The first thing to look for is the right type of wood. His style of working involved deep carving and intricate pattern, which would be impossible working on anything other than hard wood. His favourite was mahogany and he would always use solid wood throughout a build- so if the one you have your eye on has a veneer, even if it is a very fine one, then I’m afraid it is a fake.
If you think you have found a genuine Chippendale the next thing to do is to take the condition of the piece into account. Though a well conditioned piece will no doubt look the part, it is always advisable to go for original condition. If there are repairs or replacements in the piece, the value is lowered considerably. Any chips or knocks should be viewed as wrinkles on a wise old face rather than things you need to get rid of.
Best known for his cabinets and ladder-back chairs, Chippendale also produced tables, wardrobes and beds and, though I’ve never had the pleasure, I would imagine that a set of brand new luxury bedding covering a genuine Chippendale bed would facilitate the best sleep you could ever wish to have!