George Hepplewhite Biography
? - 1786
The person of George Hepplewhite comes very near to being a myth. His personality is mysterious; even the proof of his existence depends largely on circumstantial evidence. He was, however, an individual to be reckoned with in any study of the development of style in furniture. He is not to be explained away as a mere name given to a school. There was a personality there which impressed itself on the taste of his period, and for years Hepplewhite has shared with Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton the honour of creating or fostering that national taste for artistic beauty in furniture which reached its zenith in England between 1780 and 1800, the neoclassical period.
Of biographical data very little exists. Even the dates of his birth and death are not certainly known, and the spelling of his name has been a matter of controversy. In the first edition of his book it was spelled "Heppelwhite", and this spelling has appeared occasionally elsewhere. In the later editions, however, the name appears as "Hepplewhite".
George Hepplewhite was born no one knows just where, at some time during the first half of the eighteenth century, and was apprenticed to the Gillows at Lancaster. Later he carried on a cabinet-making business in Redcross street, Parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. He must have died in 1786, for the records show that on June 27th of that year the administration of his estate was granted to his widow, Alice Hepplewhite. He left a profitable business and property of considerable value.
After his death the business was carried on by his widow and partners, trading as A. Hepplewhite & Co., and it is their name which appears on the catalogue of his designs which was published two years after his death, the "Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Guide".
No record has been left as to the sort of man Hepplewhite was. We can only argue from his work and success that he was a man of taste and skill, educated at least in his art, and possessed of business ability second only to that of Chippendale. He was the most prominent cabinet-maker and furniture designer in England at a time when this was a prosperous and populous industry.
The only visible evidence we have of his work is in his posthumous book. It is known that he made furniture after his own designs, but many others made use of them also, so that today we have only weak means of identification.
The full title of the book, which is descriptive of its contents, is as follows (taken from the third edition): "The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide; or repository of designs for every article of household furniture, in the newest and most approved taste: displaying a great variety of patterns for: Chairs, Tea Caddies, Hanging Shelves, Stools, Tea Trays, Fireplace Screens, Sofas, Card Tables, Beds, Confidante, Pier Tables, Field Beds, Duchesse, Pembroke Tables, Sweep Tops for Ditto, Side Boards, Tambour Tables, Bed Pillars, Pedestals and Vases, Dressing Glasses, CandleStands, Cellerets, Dressing Tables and Drawers, Lamps, Knife Cases, Commodes, Pier Glasses, Desk and BookCases, Rudd's Table, Terms for Busts, Secretary and BookCases, Bidets, Cornices for Library, Library Cases, Night Tables, Cases, Wardrobes, at large, Library Tables, Basin Stands, Ornamented Tops for Pier, Reading Desks, Wardrobes Tables, Chests of Drawers, Pot Cupboards, Commodes, Urn Stands, Brackets in the plainest and most enriched styles; with a scale to each, and an explanation in letter press. ; also the plan of a room, showing the proper distribution of the furniture. The whole exhibiting near three hundred different designs, engraved on one hundred and twenty eight plates; from drawings by A. Hepplewhite and co. Cabinet Makers".
The first edition of this book was published in 1788, the second in 1789, and the third in 1794. It was a business-like book for the trade, and the most notable of several similar works published by others at about the same time. In the preface Hepplewhite states his creed as follows: "To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable, has ever been considered a difficult but an honourable task". It is the simple statement of a true craftsman, and might have come from the pen of John Ruskin or William Morris.
Postponing for the moment a general criticism of Hepplewhite's work, the impression one receives from looking through his book is of a lack of uniformity. Some of the designs are fine and graceful, some heavy and bordering on ugliness, which adds some colour to the theory that not all the designs in the books were by Hepplewhite himself. It is perhaps not too much to assume that his pencil was responsible for the best of them. Some of the rectangular-backed chairs strongly suggest Sheraton; the sofas are hardly compelling in the main; the girandoles, pier glasses, etc., are very fine and delicate and are decidedly of the Adam furniture type; the sideboards show no drawers, but are equipped with vases and pedestals at the ends and with knife-boxes on top; the chairs and small tables make decidedly the best showing; stools and other pieces are strongly Louis XVI in style; the beds somehow fail to satisfy; something seems to be wrong with their proportions, though the pillars are in most cases very graceful. So much of an impression may be gained through a hasty study of this book.
Though the "Guide" was published after Hepple-white's death and was doubtless prepared toward the close of his life, many of the designs may have been drawn some time before. He had undoubtedly been in business for several years and had probably been making furniture of this type. He was almost certainly a competitor of Chippendale, and his best work probably antedates the publication of his book by upward of ten years.
To return to Hepplewhite's place among the Georgian designers and craftsmen, his detractors are inclined to point out that his name has been given to a school or a fashion which he did not create. They assert that he did not originate the so-called Hepplewhite style, but was merely one of many exponents. They point out that others were working in this style, and that the Gillows preceded him, while Adam was the real source of its principles. But every school and movement has its leader, and Hepplewhite was undoubtedly the superior of his contemporaries. He was constructive, and he did more than any other to crystallize the new taste.
It is also true that most of the so-called Hepplewhite furniture was not made by Hepplewhite, but only controversialists need attempt to distinguish between the actual work of his shop, the designs shown in his book, and the work of his contemporaries working along parallel lines. Call it the work of a school and not of an individual if you will, or the normally developing fashion of an hour, it exhibits too many wonderful attributes not to confess to the parentage of a master, and Hepplewhite must have been that master.
And what one of the masters was entirely original? The great master always knows how to apply and adapt the work of others. Like Chippendale, Hepplewhite borrowed freely, from both France and England. He and Sheraton were fortunate in coming after furniture making had been established as one of the fine arts, and there was a mass of material for them to draw from. It was to Adam that Hepplewhite owed his greatest debt. It was Hepplewhite's aim to break away from the Chippendale style and to combine elegance with lightness, and in the Adam introductions he found the most available material for this. From Adam he took the tapering leg which he did most to popularize, the oval chair back, and painted ornament. In fact, there is such a merging of styles from Adam to Hepplewhite and Sheraton that it is often impossible to draw sharp lines of distinction.
Granting all this indefmiteness, it is still possible to make some sort of critical study of what is generally considered as Hepplewhite's contribution to the style of his day. He was, first of all, an exponent of elegance. That was the keynote of his style. He pared away all clumsiness from his designs. Their extreme fineness, in some cases, produces almost the effect of weakness, but he was a thorough enough craftsman to offset this with excellence of construction in the work which he actually executed himself.
Hepplewhite's style lies somewhere between the rococo and the Classic. He broke away from Chippendale, though he was not a thorough Classicist like Adam, nor did he ever achieve quite the perfection of delicacy reached by Sheraton. On the other hand, he possessed balance and restraint and common sense, and he avoided the ultra-fantastic which neither Chippendale nor Sheraton was guiltless of. On the whole, his style was more distinctly English than Chippendale's, and if he was not a student of the Classic like Adam, he at least absorbed much of the Classic feeling.
The Place of Hepplewhite
It is difficult to arrive at a comparative estimate of Hepplewhite's position in the Hall of Fame. We know so little about him; his own work as a cabinetmaker is so difficult to identify; so little is known as to just how far his designs should be credited to his own originality. We may safely conclude, however, that he was a man not without force, imagination, originality, and artistic resources. He had an eye sensitive to design, and he must be given credit for the general high level of his design, proportion, and workmanship.
Lightness, delicacy, grace, and refinement characterize his style and give us an inkling of the character of the man. He may be reckoned something of a pioneer, for he was one of the first of the cabinet-makers to break away from Chippendale domination. Adam undoubtedly influenced his style, but did not entirely determine the best of Hepplewhite's designs. George Hepplewhite was at least a practical cabinet-maker of independent if not original ideas, and his work certainly produced a profound effect on the style of the period.
R. S. Clouston, the English authority, says
I am unable to rank Hepplewhite with Chippendale on the one side or Sheraton on the other, either in construction or design, yet there is an undefinable charm about his work, even when faulty by rule, which, like some old song, touches a higher and more human note than can be attained by mere correctness.