This article discusses the Chippendale furniture design style, noting its characteristics and some of the adaptations that were made, and describing the three main types of furniture (case pieces, tables, and chairs) and the different variations of each. It originally appeared in the December 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.
Thomas Chippendale lived in the London of great artists whose names are indelibly associated with their work — Garrick and the theater, Gainsborough and portraiture, Johnson and his dictionary, to mention but a few. A member of the Society of Arts, Chippendale (1718-79) had a large shop in St. Martin’s Lane, London, where he designed and made furniture for some of the great mansions of England. He was inspired by the rocaille lines and decorations of contemporary Paris, by motifs from the Gothic of the dilettante, Sir Horace Walpole, and by the pseudo-Chinese style of Sir William Chambers, architect to George III.
Though he had many gifted competitors, Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, published in 1754, was the first of the important English volumes illustrating furniture designs. It was re-issued in later editions in 1755 and 1762. Chippendale’s fame spread and numerous copies of the Director were brought to America.
At the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first circulating library in America, such well-known and prolific furniture makers as William Savery, Benjamin Randolph, James Gillingham, Daniel Trotter and John Eliott, Jr. had access to the volume. Thomas Affleck, who was no less well-known, personally owned a copy to the end of his life. It is clear that many others came under its influence. Possibly some of those artisans who advertised in colonial newspapers as coming from “some of the most capital shops in London” had been journeymen in Chippendale’s own shop.
In Philadelphia, Chippendale’s style was simplified and given new characteristics. Cabinet makers with imagination were responsible for the change, though local conditions also had their influence, for Philadelphia society, led by worldly people who followed the fashions of the Georgian Court, imported all its extravagances from London and demanded London pieces made in carved and polished woods, or similar types of American make.
On the other hand, the Friends or Quakers, whose leader, William Penn, had founded Philadelphia in 1682, still tinged the life of the city. Colonials with smaller pocketbooks of necessity sought the local product in restrained forms. One has but to look at Chippendale’s Director to see that some of his designs were almost impossible of execution. Some of them, indeed, were never attempted, even in London.
Chippendale pictures sharp curves and intricate ornament neither of which was practical when used in a thin unlaminated piece of wood such as a chair back. The grain running but one way is too fragile for delicate treatment. Such designs must be left to the worker in metals, whether it be gold filagree or wrought iron.
Furthermore, the painting and gilding he suggests in his book were not generally acceptable to the English speaking people either in England, Ireland or America. Hence most of the Philadelphia furniture of this period tends to plainness, but that does not mean that much was not decorated in the rococo taste. Whatever the elaboration it must first of all be practical. Gilding would tarnish and chip; ribbon backs, one of Chippendale’s favorite themes, could only be made in structurally sound, and therefore modified adaptations. But elaborate pieces were made in Philadelphia and it is some of this furniture that is to be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is perhaps more fine Philadelphia Chippendale there than in any other similar collection.
The demand for local American products in preference to imported things commenced even before trouble developed between the colonies and the mother country. The idea of “patronizing home industries” is not a new one. In the face of changes to succeeding modes — the Federal, the Empire, the Victorian and the Modern — the Philadelphia-Chippendale style has held its place because it is practical, long-lasting and attractive.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has acquired over the years by purchase and gift many superb pieces of Philadelphia Chippendale furniture. These examples include two exceedingly elaborate chairs, commonly known as “sample chairs” because they were part of the six different ones made by Benjamin Randolph “at the Sign of the Golden Ball,” his Chestnut Street shop about 1770; the Edward James tallcase clock (fig. 1); some of the furniture made by Thomas Affleck for Gov. John Penn (fig. 7); and the outstanding collection formed by the late R. Wistar Harvey (fig. 8 b and c). These are exhibited by the Museum in the Samuel Powel ballroom (see frontispiece), one of the most interesting of period rooms, and in several of the American galleries.
With this wealth of material, no other museum affords equal opportunity for studying Philadelphia Chippendale. There are, of course, other fine pieces of furniture in the notable 18th century houses in Fairmount Park in which the Museum, too, is situated. Of this “Colonial Chain of Houses” which are open to the public, three show interesting examples of Philadelphia Chippendale: “Cedar Grove,” begun in 1721 and completed in its present form in 1795; “Woodford,” built as a one-story country house in 1742 and added to in 1756 and 1775, and “Mt. Pleasant Mansion,” dating from 1762, which John Adams in 1775 termed “The America,” is an example. The “bird cage,” a device permitting round tea tables and candlestands to revolve and their tops to tilt, and the method of bracing the inside of the chair frames with “corner blocks,” are also typical.
To study Philadelphia Chippendale furniture properly, it is wise to become familiar with the very best examples available. From study of them the true Philadelphia Chippendale quality, ornament and proportions may be recognized in other pieces. Students of the finest pieces will then be able to see the beauty in the simpler pieces, which, while lack lowboy standing on high cabriole legs that end in ball-and-claw feet.
It is in fact an American invention. The French commode — which is more of a bureau on short legs — is its nearest prototype. These lowboys were treated with acanthus or cartouche carved knees, ornamental skirts and reeded or vine-carved corners. The lower middle drawer was invariably shell carved or otherwise highly decorated, sometimes with incised and sometimes with applied carving, or a combination of both. This drawer was repeated in execution on most pitch or bonnet top highboys in the upper tier of drawers, or else compensated by the addition of bold carving of the same character above the three small top drawers.
The rule was not followed on pieces where an open-work fret separates the case from the pediment. In the variants the pediments are always triangular or have the broken arch, never the pitch or the bonnet top. The chest-on-chest is likewise finished by a fret and a geometric arch (fig. 3), except on a plain piece where it might have a straight molded top. Customarily, every lowboy was made with a matching highboy. In the highboy the lower member was a larger counterpart of the lowboy, with the same arrangement of drawers and the same most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.
Since Philadelphia Chippendale has become the cognomen for all furniture possessing certain distinctive characteristics created by the Philadelphia makers between 1750 and 1785, it is now in order to state the characteristics that identify it. The bold ball-and-claw feet at the end of cabriole legs, the scroll and triangular pediments, and the deeply carved renderings of the acanthus leaf, scroll, vines and “peanut” (fig. 8a), are distinctive of the time and place. Incidentally the word “peanut,” as its name implies, is a smooth elongated nut-shaped carving found on well carved Philadelphia pieces. It is usually surrounded by vines or scrolls either carved, as on the knee or the “ear” of the chair rail, or as a part of a cartouche on the central finial of a high chest or secretary.
The Marlborough type of this Chippendale style is recognized by its square legs, sometimes ornamented in the Gothic or Chinese taste, or, if not, deeply molded. This Marlborough type (fig. 7) achieved success in Philadelphia as nowhere else in America. Certain details of construction are idiosyncrasies of local workmanship. The manner in which the side rail pierced the back leg with a tenon — never used in London or indeed elsewhere in America — is an example. The “bird cage,” a device permitting round tea tables and candlestands to revolve and their tops to tilt, and the method of bracing the inside of the chair frames with “corner blocks,” are also typical.
To study Philadelphia Chippendale furniture properly, it is wise to become familiar with the very best examples available. From study of them the true Philadelphia Chippendale quality, ornament and proportions may be recognized in other pieces. Students of the finest pieces will then be able to see the beauty in the simpler pieces, which, while lacking in ornamentation, have scale and proportion, grace and individuality.
There are but three main categories in furniture classification — case pieces, tables and chairs.
CASE PIECES include the highboy and the lowboy; the chest-on-frame, the chest-on-chest and the bureau; the slope-fall desk and the desk to which an upper bookcase section has been added to make a secretary-bookcase; the straight and the breakfront bookcase; and the clockcase, whether the shelf or the tallcase grandfather clock.
Nothing represents the Philadelphia Chippendale school so well as the typical lowboy standing on high cabriole legs that end in ball-and-claw feet. It is in fact an American invention. The French commode — which is more of a bureau on short legs — is its nearest prototype. These lowboys were treated with acanthus or cartouche carved knees, ornamental skirts and reeded or vine-carved corners. The lower middle drawer was invariably shell carved or otherwise highly decorated, sometimes with incised and sometimes with applied carving, or a combination of both. This drawer was repeated in execution on most pitch or bonnet top highboys in the upper tier of drawers, or else compensated by the addition of bold carving of the same character above the three small top drawers.
The rule was not followed on pieces where an open-work fret separates the case from the pediment. In the variants the pediments are always triangular or have the broken arch, never the pitch or the bonnet top. The chest-on-chest is likewise finished by a fret and a geometric arch (fig. 3), except on a plain piece where it might have a straight molded top.
Customarily, every lowboy was made with a matching highboy. In the highboy the lower member was a larger counterpart of the lowboy, with the same arrangement of drawers and the same pattern of ornamentation (fig. 2). The two pieces were seen in many well-furnished 18th century bedrooms, the lowboy serving as a dressing table, the highboy for the storage of linens and clothing.
Across the generations that have intervened since then these pairs have been separated in family divisions, except in a few instances. There is in the Philadelphia Museum today no single matching high and lowboy, although they do occur in private possession, such as the pair inherited by Mrs. W. Logan MacCoy through the family of Levi Hollingsworth. This pair have been on exhibition at the Museum from time to time.
The secretary-bookcase of necessity was much more decorated than the slope-fall desk, for the secretary-bookcase often had an elaborated top — something a desk could not have. The larger pieces were made with architectural pediments resembling highboys, and one with solid doors is to be found in the Powel room (fig. 4). Another one, from the Lorimer collection, is in the drawing room at Mt. Pleasant Mansion.
TABLES were of infinite variety during the mid-18th century. One or more dining tables could be fitted together provided the edges of the leaves were square not trefoiled — (the latter are much preferred today by collectors). On most of these tables, two legs swing out to support the drop leaves; the other two legs, remaining rigid, always interfere with the comfort of a sitter when the chair is drawn up to the table.
The tops were of beautifully grained wood, and, because they were beautiful, no lady covered her table with linen. Such concealment came at a later date. The first mention of the change is in a letter written by Benjamin Franklin from London in 1758 to his “Debby” in the Quaker City, that “in London nobody breakfasts here on the naked table, but on the Cloth set a large Tea Board with the cups.” In order that she might ape the London mode, he sent her “six coarse diaper Breakfast Cloaths.” Even in the Federal period, when linen table cloths were proper for dinner, the cloth was removed at dessert.
Breakfast was sometimes served on an easily moved Pembroke table with flaps or leaves that might be put up to extend the size of the table. Tea or supper was an intimate meal with family and friends sitting around a tripod table, identified by its edge as either a piecrust or dish-top table. Tables like the one illustrated in fig. 6 are of the highest artistic quality. Similar bulbous turned pedestals were used for candlestands and for fire-screens. One of the latter, the finest ever seen, is in the Powel room. It has carved hairy-paw feet.
Cards and backgammon called for four-legged tables with double or triple tops rounded at the corners for candles or refreshments. As in all other tables, decoration depended on individual taste. Often there was a single drawer for cards and ivory counters.
There is no such thing as a Chippendale sideboard. Sideboard-tables, somewhat higher than other tables, antedate sideboards, which do not appear until the time of Hepplewhite and Sheraton. The top of these tables was often marble (fig. 5), for on them decanters occupied the place of honor and punch could be mixed without the possibility of injury to the surface. Square Marlborough legs lent themselves to sideboard tables, and they are seen supporting the gadrooned frame for a marble top in the one that belonged to Gov. John Penn after the Revolution.
CHAIRS were made with three principal types of splats — the Gothic, the French, and the strap-scrolled which was a transition from and a lightening of the former solid splat, often called Queen Anne. The Museum is rich in material for the study of chairs in the Philadelphia Chippendale style. Important examples of the three basic splats are illustrated in fig. 8. The student will find pleasure in discovering and classifying others that are on exhibition throughout the galleries.
While the choice of splat may give a chair type its name, that splat and the execution of the feet and legs are, together, indications of its quality. Until the ladder-back was introduced somewhat late in the Chippendale period, all seats were straight in front —never serpentine or convex. The cabriole or curved leg was standard, the only exception being the straight Marlborough leg.
The front skirt of the chair illustrated in fig. 8a seems a bit stiff, but when this member was shaped so that each end blended into the bracketed cabriole leg as in fig. 8c, it attains a pleasing flow of line. Sometimes a shell or other motif was applied or carved in the center, or the whole effect might be lightened by a scalloped edge as in figure 8b. The success of the ball and claw foot varied with the skill of the cabinetmaker. In the best examples the claw appears to grip the ball, which is to say, its modeling should be crisp not flabby. The rear foot was really the stump of the back upright and not a foot at all. In England this flared out near the bottom into a substantial foot. Very few American chairs have this characteristic. In fact the two Randolph “sample” chairs in the Powel room are the only exceptions to the general rule.
The three side chairs illustrated in fig. 8 further present a study in uprights and in cresting rails. The uprights, or the sides of the back, form an unbroken curve from the top rail to the bottom of the foot. The vine carving on the first chair is highly decorative; the molded sides in the second example are usual on good chairs; while the fluted sides in the third chair are formal and occur but rarely. On the first of the chairs under consideration the curves of the cresting rail carry on into the motif of the splat, blending the two into a single unit; while the other two seem to comprise separate units. The “ears,” too, should be observed: the first has the “peanut”; the second, foliate carving; the third, cockle shells.
Chairs were usually made in sets of six or more, with or without one or two armchairs. Duplicates of earlier purchases might be acquired later as the family needs increased. “Elbow” chairs were not merely side chairs with arms added but were larger and with outward flaring arms. Each chair varied slightly in dimensions, so it was customary to strike a Roman numeral with a chisel on the inside of the chair frame and on the under part of the loose or slip seat for identification and mating.
Six of the now famous “sample” chairs have been traced to the shop of Benjamin Randolph and to the hand of his talented carver, Hercules Courtenay. Each one of the six is of the most elaborate character and each displays the several styles of carved fret and the various backs that the shop was able to offer wealthy buyers.
Philadelphia Chippendale furniture has no thin veneers to peel off; no boxwood pencil lines to fall out; no gilt to tarnish and chip. No better word than solid may be applied to it. For honesty and simplicity of construction in combination with grace in design and unexcelled color, Philadelphia Chippendale remains the most popular, the most sought for and the most desirable of American period furniture. One has but to study it and to use it to answer the question, why?
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.