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Biography of Thomas Chippendale the Furniture Maker

Short bio or biography of the furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.

1718 - 1779

Birthplace & Early Life

For many years it was held that Thomas Chippendale was of Worcestershire origin, but the following note, published in "The Cabinet Maker" for 22nd April 1922, throws a fresh light on Chippendale's birthplace and early surroundings:

Canon Howstori, rector of Guisley and rural dean of Otley, has published in the Guisley Parish Church magazine that Thomas Chippendale was baptized at Otley on 5th June 1718. The date and birthplace of Chippendale have always been matters for controversy, and hitherto it has been accepted that Thomas Chippendale, the father of the great Thomas Chippendale, was a Worcestershire man. It is known that he removed to London with his son in 1727, and authentic information concerning the son is to be obtained from the registers of St George's Chapel, Mayfair, which give particulars of his marriage with Catherine Redshaw in 1748. The researches of Canon Howston in the parish registers of Otley have resulted in the tracing of the Chippendale family to John Chippendale of Farnley, who was buried at Otley on 8th August 1708.

Nearly a year later the same paper published an article on "The Chippendale Family", based on information provided by Mr John Chippendale, a great-great-grandson of the famous cabinet maker, and the facts put forward in that article certainly suggest that Chippendale (or Chippindale as the name was sometimes spelt) was a Yorkshireman.

Reference is made to an indenture of lease and release dated 30th April 1770, which is preserved in the West Riding Registry at Leeds, wherein "Thomas Chippindale, of St Martin's Lane, London, cabinet maker", is mentioned together with three of his uncles, William, Benjamin and Joseph, and the documents are concerned with a messuage, gardens, orchards, and so forth, in Broughgate, in Otley.

These facts and information connected with Chippendale's early life and training are especially interesting in studying his work, for apparently his father was a country craftsman, imbued with the traditional spirit of furniture making and, if he was a Yorkshireman, drawing inspiration from a locality that had produced furniture with skill and invention for many generations.

It may be because of that early period of familiarity with the strength and simplicity of country made furniture that in Chippendale's designs, no matter how fantastic or foreign is his mood, there is something fundamentally English. Even his Chinese extravagances cannot destroy the balance and proportion that mark his work as that of a master designer and a thorough craftsman.

He was not trained in foreign fashions, like William Kent, but he adapted foreign ideas with singular success, and as a designer his invention was prolific.

A country craftsman migrating to the cruel and fashionable eighteenth century capital of Great Britain, London, might easily have failed to win a place among the accomplished furniture makers ; but the genius and organisational ability of Thomas Chippendale was destined to lead the ideas of those town craftsmen, and for nearly half a century his designs were copied by his contemporaries.

Publications & Furniture

He was well established in London by 1749, having premises in Conduit Street, Long Acre, moving in 1753 to 60 St Martin's Lane. In 1754 he published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, which is described on the title page as being a "large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of houshold furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste". The author also suggests on the title page that the "One Hundred and Sixty Copper-Plates neatly Engraved", are "Calculated to improve and refine the present Taste", and "suited to the Fancy and Circumstances of Persons in all Degrees of Life". See pictures of Chippendale furniture.

Chippendale's furniture forms a better monument to his inspiration than the collection of designs that appear on the "neatly engraved" plates of the Director. In the preface he writes "I frankly confess, that in executing many of the drawings, my pencil has but faintly copied out those images that my fancy suggested, and had they not been published till I could have pronounced them perfect, perhaps they had never seen the light".

The fearful and wonderful complexity of some of the designs suggests that Chippendale with a pencil in his hand and the idea of a series of illustrations for publication in his mind was a very different person from the craftsman who could produce ornate but beautifully proportioned furniture, the man who worked with Robert Adam on the furnishing of Harewood House, in Yorkshire, and who inspired his generation. Many of the designs in the book lack the solidity, the strength and vigour characteristic of his furniture, and the French chairs, and some of the mirror frames, in "the Chinese taste", are overly fussy.

The graceful lines associated with the furniture of the first decades of the eighteenth century, were retained by Chippendale, and in his first period of work he brought to the strength and elegance of Queen Anne furniture models the subtle touches of French fashion. Chippendale chairs are miracles of craftsmanship; their symmetry and proportion proclaiming the work of a master designer.

Ribbon back chairs were one of his triumphs, and working in mahogany his designs are easily ornate, the carved ornament having a flow and freedom that accentuates the beauty of line possessed by those wonderful chairs.

His interest in Chinese decoration and architecture was shared by William Chambers, the designer of Somerset House, The Albany, the Pagoda in Kew Gardens, and many other buildings, who was the author of a treatise on "Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils", which was published in 1757, and also of a "Dissertation on Oriental Gardening", which made its appearance in 1772.

The Chinese taste that had begun in the seventeenth century, ( see laquer furniture ) when the lacquer cabinets and screens, the porcelain and fine fabrics of the East found a place in well-appointed English homes, was to culminate in the style that has come to be known as Chinese Chippendale. It is a pleasant style, and the frets of glazed bookcases and chinese cabinets, the carved lattice work legs of tables and Chinese chairs, suggest that Chippendale had this particular idea well in hand, and that his outbursts of elaboration in the Chinese manner were only occasional; the most extravagant of them seem to be confined to paper.

The Gothic experiments of Horace Walpole, whose villa at Strawberry Hill was an expression of his eccentric taste, were to have their effect on Chippendale, whose final phase of design, under this Gothic influence, is for some the least successful. Nevertheless his models in the Gothic taste are sometimes very able pieces of work. He adapted the form of church window tracery for the backs of Gothic chairs and for the glazing bars of Gothic bookcases; the pointed arch motif appears in frets; but he seems to have rather failed to recapture the vigour and freedom of the old Gothic workmanship.

Chippendale's Later Life & Influence

Chippendale's business, under the title of Chippendale, Haig and Co., was continued until about 1796 ; it was then continued by his son, Thomas, the third of that name who was concerned with furniture. His father, the great Thomas Chippendale, died in 1779, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

In considering his work and influence upon the form of furniture it becomes clear that he was a designer who loved ornament, but never allowed that love to make him forget the purpose of his models. The delicacy of his carving, the wealth of fancy expressed by the foliage, ribbons and interlaced embellishment ; all these things have the complexity of rococo extravagances in ornament, and yet they are sobered and given a more satisfying character because they have been edited by an English craftsman who had enjoyed the benefit of early instruction, so we can assume, in the traditional methods, country-bred and preserved in the country, of furniture making.

The peculiar beauty of Chippendale chairs have been mentioned, and reference must be made also to his settees, with their backs formed by two or three conjoined chair backs, with subtle adjustments of proportion to mould the design into a harmonious composition.

His gift to furnishing of a four-post bed that combined grace with comfort, and allowed the stuffy conditions deemed proper to sleep in his day to remain unaltered, is also noteworthy, and the four post Chippendale bed ( see Gothic beds and Rococo beds ), with its light columns, delicately ornamented, its comparatively simple valance and tester, was a pleasant change from the massive canopied structures that had loomed, monstrous and funereal, in the bedrooms of the seventeenth century.

Breakfront bookcases, cabinets, long cases for clocks, escritoires, tables in immense variety, from the small tripod type to designs with galleried tops, clothes presses, chests, sideboards, mirrors - all kinds of domestic furniture as well as more ambitious and elaborate things derived benefit from Chippendale's attention.

His designs founded a school of taste, and his book went into a second edition in 1759, and a third in 1762.

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