This article discusses the two conflicting opinions about Thomas Chippendale (some say he is not worthy of the fame he received, while others say he was a master of furniture design), also noting the stretch of his influence and the differences between Chippendale furniture created in the U.S. and in England. It originally appeared in the June 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.
For over a generation there has been growing contention about Thomas Chippendale and the English and American furniture of his period. Articles by the score and books by the half dozen have been written. The end is not yet, nor will it be so long as collectors are so captivated by structural sincerity and ornamental beauty that they must possess authentic examples of Chippendale furniture as produced by contemporary craftsmen of the British Isles or Colonial America.
There are two schools of thought regarding this man and his furniture. One holds that he was just another London cabinetmaker and that his claim to fame rests on the work of others; the other is equally certain that he was the first and greatest English master of furniture design and that to him belongs credit, as the originating genius, for all of the mobiliary works of art produced by his contemporary Anglo-American cabinetmakers.
Those who would debunk what they consider the Chippendale myth stoutly maintain that his book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, was patently the self-advertising of an aggressive cabinetmaker who used the ideas and work of others to attract trade. Among the faults and shortcomings of his Director, they hold that the designs of the individual pieces are so confused and exaggerated that they could not possibly have been used as direct guides from which to construct the furniture depicted. Further, they cite that careful research has established the fact that six different draftsmen, and perhaps more, did the drawings from which the plates were engraved.
They hint broadly that in their opinion a proportion of the plates were first published by other unidentified designers and were incorporated, possibly practically, in one or all of the three editions (1754, 1755, and 1762) to increase the size. Finally, they advance the claim that some of the plates are designs for pieces of furniture current with all best London cabinetmakers before the first edition of the Director was “printed for the author and sold at his house in St. Martin’s Lane.”
According to this brief of the minutiae-minded, in order to deserve the recognition as a style creator that the public, in its ignorance, has long accorded him, Thomas Chippendale should have made, with his own hands, every piece of furniture depicted in all three editions, each being strictly a new conception, and then personally executed the drawings from which the plates were engraved. From this viewpoint the Director was a “vanity book” and little credit was due Chippendale, save the fact that his name as author was boldly printed on the title page. This they cannot erase, nor has a contemporary letter, agreement, or document been discovered to disprove his authorship.
With the opposite school of thought, Thomas Chippendale occupies the place of first and greatest master of Anglo-American furniture design. To them, his position is as secure and as merited as that accorded to Sir Christopher Wren in architecture. Certainly, the latter did not draw all of the plans for all the churches he designed and rebuilt after London’s Great Fire of 1666. These range from St. Paul’s Cathedral to numerous parish churches. Nor was he responsible, save that he crystallized a style, for the Wren churches built in Colonial America.
Those built in London under his supervision were Greco-Roman temples of stone and brick surmounted by Gothic spires. The Wren churches in America were boxlike wooden meetinghouses with Gothic spires. But with both, Wren was the master. His was the flair for combining these widely differing architectural elements so that a new and beautiful structure resulted. On this, his fame rests secure. By direction and inspiration, he bent his helpers and followers to his conception, so that while they worked in the Wren tradition, they were not slavish copyists, but capable of making variations of their own in detail and material.
So with Thomas Chippendale. His Director had a far-reaching and powerful impact on Anglo-American furniture. It does, not matter how many helped in compiling the three editions — from the Grubb Street hack writer, who wrote the preface and explanatory notes for the individual plates, to the draftsmen who prepared the drawings for the copperplate engravers. The fact remains that they were directed and led by Chippendale. It does not matter whether his object was to make the furniture designs of his own artistry and those in popular demand by fashionable London available to other cabinetmakers or merely to publicize his own shop.
Before him, Lock and others had published books containing drawings of architectural ornaments and a few pieces of furniture, but the Director was the first concerned solely with furniture and decorative accessories. His was the conception, and to him belongs the fame. This applies to furniture made under the inspiration of the Director plates in both England and America.
Rereading and restudying all editions of the Director makes clear the purpose of its author, who was more than just the head of his cabinetmaking shop in St. Martin’s Lane. Essentially, he was an artist. This was recognized a few years after the Director was published by his election, on the nomination of Sir Thomas Robinson, to The Society of Arts. At the same time, he remained a practical cabinetmaker. His plan of the book was to provide a series of provocative furniture plates to serve the man of means about to order new equipment for his country estate or London house. Here were style ideas that such a man could show his cabinetmaker as a basis for discussion of how his furniture should be fashioned and how decorated.
Not a plate in the Director was a working plan or measured drawing. In most of them, the left and right sides of the pieces depicted were shown with variations of structure, contour, and ornament. Thus, each plate did at least double duty. The author never intended the plates to be patterns or mechanical drawings that could be handed to a journeyman with the instructions: “Make this.” The explanatory notes to the individual plates frequently include such comments as: “A skillful workman may also lessen the carving without any prejudice to the design. If the carving of the chairs is thought superfluous, the outlines may be preserved and they will look very well.” Again, regarding a bookcase: “The trusses, pilaster, and drops of flowers are pretty ornaments, but all may be omitted if required.”
Clearly, Chippendale expected that his designs would be altered by other cabinetmakers to suit the requirements of their customers and to please their own constructive impulses. It is exactly what happened in England and in America. With the Director to lead the way, cabinetmakers changed, adapted, simplified, or possibly made more ornate, as dictated by the exigencies of the situation, the taste of the customer, or the plumpness of his purse.
Also, Chippendale designed furniture in more than one style. Of the more than five hundred designs shown in the three editions of his Director, one hundred plates are early Georgian (the furniture current when Chippendale was working as an apprentice and after he had established his own shop); one hundred and ninety-five are French rococo, reflecting fashions current in the reigns of Louis XIV and XV; in forty, chinoiserie or the “Chinese conceit” rules; and in twenty-five, the styles are an adaptation from Gothic architecture,
For at least ten years there has been a growing interest in American Chippendale furniture and an ever-widening desire to know just what pieces were made and in which of the four centers where it was chiefly produced. Discovery of the six sample chairs credited to Benjamin Randolph of Philadelphia and, because of the fine carving, first attributed to London craftsmen undoubtedly gave this interest impetus. We have learned much since then and many supremely fine pieces hidden in heirloom collections have been brought forth.
Right now Ginsburg & Levy, Inc., of New York, are holding a special exhibition in the 57th Street Galleries of a collection the firm has been gathering for several years of rare but representative examples of American Chippendale furniture at its best. Also, when the collection that Mr. and Mrs. Maxim Karolick have given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open to the public, still more will be added to the general knowledge of the artistry and skill with which American cabinetmakers adapted the designs of the Director to suit the needs and tastes of Colonial America.
Even in the British Isles, during the period of his great influence, 1754 to about 1770, at least four easily distinguished kinds of Chippendale furniture were being made. These were London, English provincial, of which that of Yorkshire and Lancastershire were characteristic, Scotch and Irish. A whole book could be written on the similarities and differences, both structural and ornamental, of these geographic variations of this Chippendale of the British Isles. But for the collector a comparison between the Chippendale furniture of London and that of Colonial America is a case more in point.
American Chippendale might not have been so different from that of London except for an important political-economic protest to the Crown and its ministry that was a forerunner of the American Revolution. It was the non-importation resolutions passed by the assemblies of the various colonies in protest to taxation measures passed by Parliament. As pressure groups, they resolved not to import English goods and so the flow of London-made Chippendale furniture into the important commercial centers of America fell off after 1765 to almost the vanishing point.
But copies of the Director, as well as separate plates, had already found their way to America; and, up to the outbreak of the Revolution, there was a steady migration of journeymen cabinetmakers from London. These new arrivals undoubtedly brought both vivid recollections of how furniture in the Chippendale manner was made and ornamented in the shops where they had been apprentices and also paper patterns of individual pieces.
However, as our cabinetmakers began to work in the Chippendale manner, fundamental differences were soon manifest. Take the cabriole leg for example. In its curve and the consistent adherence to the claw-and-ball foot, the design retained the strength and prominent profile of the Queen Anne or very early Georgian furniture of England. In fact, as a whole, American Chippendale can be said to have retained, with a few rare exceptions, the strong structural lines that had ceased to be a characteristic of English furniture fifteen if not twenty years before the Director made its initial appearance. In short, American Chippendale was characterized by bolder curves and more masculine vigor than that of London.
There were four chief centers where our Chippendale furniture was made. These were Philadelphia, New York, Newport, Rhode Island, and Boston. Each produced a variation of the Chippendale which, in addition to that elusive something known as the American spirit, possessed characteristics peculiar to the locality. So much so that today we can recognize the furniture of the four localities almost at a glance. The reason for this local emphasis is obvious when one remembers the poor means of communication and transportation. Six weeks from Boston to Philadelphia by land was good traveling in the 18th Century.
Also, in American Chippendale furniture, we find certain pieces not made in England which were highly popular here. Most outstanding, of course, were those companion pieces, the highboy and lowboy, which were totally out of fashion in England after the Queen Anne period. But in Colonial America cabinetmakers working in the Chippendale manner lavished a wealth of ornament on these two pieces, distinctly in the manner of decorations shown in the Director. London cabinetmakers, on the contrary, produced many examples of that ornate piece which Chippendale called a French commode table that took the place of the highboy and lowboy.
Other pieces absent from the design plates of the Director, but widely made in America, were slant-top desks without bookcase top, day beds, and kneehole desks, the whole group of block-front pieces for which the Goddard-Townsend group at Newport were prime makers, and the wing chair with well-articulated short cabriole legs, terminating with claw-and-ball feet.
But there were a number of pieces delineated in the Director and produced by English cabinetmakers that appear to have been passed over almost entirely by our craftsmen. They include most of the carved decorative accessories; such as the tall, three-leg-and-pedestal candlestands, kettle stands, large, elaborate pier-glass frames, hanging shelves, brackets, girandoles, cases for tables or mantel clocks and tea caddies. In the larger pieces of furniture, American taste apparently omitted practically everything made on a three-quarter scale and intended for a lady’s parlor; items in the French taste (here a few made by Philadelphia cabinetmakers are exceptions); the flat-top pedestal desk, china cabinets, dressing tables with a large elaborately framed mirror as an integral part, chests for clothing, multipart library bookcases, on the grand scale, and beds with ornate if not overpowering canopies.
The answer is to be found in the Director and from surviving pieces made in London. Even the wealthy of the four chief centers of our Chippendale furniture did not live on a scale sufficiently luxurious to make such things appeal to them. In language of the trade, there were no orders. American cabinetmakers, like the master of St. Martin’s Lane, were both artists and practical men, who made it their business to please their clients. They spent their time and energy on pieces that would find a ready market. An ornate but unwanted piece to stand in his shop as a test of skill was plain nonsense to an American cabinetmaker.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.