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Hepplewhite Furniture

Hepplewhite designs, see in pictures format, for furniture show an absorption rather than an adoption of foreign styles, though they were strongly influenced by the style of Louis XVI, as Chippendale's were by that of Louis XV furniture. They are characterized by comfort rather than artificiality of ornament. Hepplewhite was a mechanical rather than a free-hand designer like Chippendale, and his designs show technical excellences that were undoubtedly the result of his practical training.

The popular taste in the late Georgian era was veering away from solid mahogany, and lighter woods, such as satinwood, chestnut, sycamore, and stained woods, were coming into vogue, beech being used to a considerable extent for painted furniture. Hepplewhite, however, clung largely to mahogany, using satinwood and rosewood moderately to meet special demands. His chairs were mostly solid mahogany, his sideboards sometimes veneered. He occasionally painted or japanned his furniture after the Adam manner, some of this being fine, though much of it lacked durability.

Hepplewhite, though not a master carver like Chippendale, used carving with greater restraint and most effectively. It was mostly in low relief. It was in inlay, however, that he excelled, and he produced some of the most refined and tasteful inlay to be found on English furniture. On the doors of wardrobes and the fronts of drawers he used a veneer of the beautiful curl mahogany that came into favour about 1760, while on the fronts of his solid mahogany tables, sideboards, and bookcases he substituted for carving an inlay of low-toned contrasting woods in simple patterns. The legs of his tables and sideboards were frequently ornamented with delicate vertical patterns in sycamore and tulip wood. He was fond of using narrow lines and bands, herring-bone patterns, the meander pattern, and the Greek fret, while the wheat ear appears constantly in his inlay and carving.

Hepplewhite introduced the tapering, square leg often tapered on the inside faces only usually ending in the spade foot, which added a needed look of strength. He also began the use of turned legs, not to be found in Chippendale's work. The cabriole leg he discarded altogether. On some of his larger pieces he used the short, hollowed-out bracket or French foot. He was fond of inserting small ovals in his chair backs, and he often used the Prince of Wales feathers in delicate carving, combined with inlay in coloured woods. The urn-shaped finials and Classic pediments found in his designs were borrowed from Adam. His finest and most elaborate inlaid work, perhaps, is to be found on his table tops.

Hepplewhite's furniture was unequal in quality. His chairs, sofas, and sideboards were among the best ever made in England, and he is chiefly remembered for them. His shield-back chair is perhaps his best known and most highly appreciated design.

Moden designers of chairs probably owe more to Hepplewhite than to any other. Like Chippendale, he devoted his best efforts to the chair. Hepplewhite chairs are refined and elegant in proportions, and are almost always stronger than they appear. The designs are structurally sound. They were generally smaller than those of Chippendale, partly because hoops had gone temporarily out of fashion.

Chairs - Shield Backs

They are best known for their oval, heart-shaped, and shield-shaped backs, and their straight, square, tapering legs, often ending in the spade foot. The typical Hepplewhite chair back is a thing of rare beauty of curve and proportion. It was rarely upholstered, but formed an open or pierced frame within which there appeared an infinite variety of patterns. These were sometimes curving upright slats, sometimes a single pierced central splat, nearly always exquisitely carved in low relief. The designs include simple flutings, Classic details, representations of urns with drapery or festoons, the husks and ears of wheat, and the three feathers of the Prince of Wales. This last was used more often in the oval-backed chairs, the back of which usually enclosed a fan-shaped splat. He also designed a square-backed chair with four or five upright slats.

The shape of the shield-back varies from round to pointed, but the top is nearly always a graceful, swelling curve, sometimes called camel-back. The shield rests on upright supports at the sides, which blend gently with the curve of the back. It is said that the Gillows may have originated the shield-back, but Hepplewhite was at least its most consistent and successful user, and most of its details were certainly original with him.


Hepplewhite's armchairs were, for the most part, similar to his side chairsperhaps a trifle broader with arms attached about half way up the back and curving throughout their length, with all harsh angles avoided. Hepplewhite chair seats were most often upholstered in coloured and figured haircloth, held in place by straight or waving rows of brass-headed nails.

Most of Hepplewhite's chairs were of solid mahogany, depending for their ornament on line and carving. Occasionally, however, he used a fine satinwood inlay, and a few of his later chairs were japanned or painted with musical trophies, floral motifs, etc., elegant and pleasing but not permanent.

Sideboards, etc.

Hepplewhite did much to develop the sideboard for both use and beauty, and introduced many articles for tea service, such as urn stands, tea trays, chests, and caddies. Adam and others had designed serving-tables, flanked by pedestals used as cellerettes and plate warmers and surmounted by hot-water urns. Knife-boxes were used on the tables and a girandole suspended above. Hepplewhite (or Shearer) combined these into one piece. Cupboards and drawers were first built into the ends of the table to contain silver, and the knife-boxes were abandoned. Then the table and pedestals were united into a single piece.

Hepplewhite's sideboards are distinguished by their beautiful serpentine fronts. These differ from Sheraton's in that the end curves are concave, while Sheraton's are convex. There are four legs in front and two or four in back. These sideboards were often embellished with fine inlay of satinwood, tulip wood, sycamore, ebony, rosewood, maple, yew, holly, etc., with little or no carving. They were perhaps the most admired of all his designs, with the possible exception of his chairs.

Sofas, etc.

Of other pieces Hepplewhite designed and probably constructed a wide variety, though not all of equal excellence. His sofas were given serpentine, convex curved, or straight backs, upholstered. His only open-back design was the bar-back or four-shield, like a row of chair backs. His French designs are considered the most successful. He designed window seats similar to Adam's, Louis XVI in type, elegant in their simplicity, with no backs and with the ends or arms rolling gracefully outward. He made dressing-tables with heart-shaped mirrors, Pembroke tables with two-hinged leaves, card tables, and pier tables with semi-circular tops.

Bedroom Furniture

His bedroom furniture was often charming, with beds, wardrobes, commodes, dressing-tables, etc., more complete and less heavy than they had been previously. His bedsteads were handsome, with carved and reeded pillars, and his wardrobe supplanted the old highboy.


In his mirror frames he took a leaf from Adam's book. They were made largely of compo and were very delicate and fragile, with Classic ornament predominating. His smaller pieces show much grace and avoidance of over-ornamentation. They include urn-shaped knife-boxes in mahogany and satinwood, a great variety of inlaid tea caddies, graceful fire screens, work tables, dressing-glasses, and little inlaid stands. He probably made no clock cases, but his influence is to be seen on those of the period, with their inlay of lines, bandings, and sand-burnt ovals and shells.

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