Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779)

Thomas Chippendale, the pre-eminent 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer, was born in Otley and was baptised in the parish church there on 5th June 1718. He was the only child of John Chippendale, a joiner, and his first wife Mary, who was the daughter of Thomas Drake a local stonemason. The location of the family home may have been in Boroughgate.

Little is known of Chippendale's early life but many of his relatives were involved in the timber and woodworking trades in the Otley area, so it is likely that after receiving an elementary education at Prince Henry's Grammar School in Otley, young Thomas served a family apprenticeship. As a young man Chippendale was almost certainly employed by Richard Wood, a leading joiner and cabinet-maker of York.

By 1748 Chippendale was established in London. The earliest evidence of his presence there is the licence recording his marriage to Catherine Redshaw at St George's Chapel in Mayfair. In due course they were to have nine children.

In London Chippendale probably worked as a journeyman cabinet maker and freelance designer. He was obviously successful, as in 1754 he moved to spacious premises in the fashionable paved thoroughfare of St Martin's Lane. 1754 was also notable for the publication of his lavish book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director. This was illustrated with 161 engraved plates of 'Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste'. It was almost immediately sold out and was reprinted in a second edition the following year. A third edition, with many new plates, appeared in 1762.

Chippendale chairs

Chippendale's Director was the first attempt in England to publish a book of designs for furniture as means of self-promotion. The result was that his business immediately became known to a wide circle of potential clients and for ever afterwards his name was associated with a distinctive rococo style.

Chippendale described himself as an 'upholder' - which implied that he was able to supply his clients with furnishings of every kind. In effect he was an entrepreneur running a large business employing perhaps as many as 50 in-house craftsmen - including cabinet-makers, upholsterers, carvers, gilders, chair makers, polishers, and packers - as well as a number of out-workers. He was the artistic director of the enterprise: supervising the workforce and its production, appeasing clients, and always keeping abreast of new fashions.

Ideally he preferred long-running commissions to equip large country or town houses from attic to basement as, for example, at Harewood House and Nostell Priory.

Sometimes clients might present their own materials with which Chippendale had to work. William Weddell of Newby Hall, for example, provided him with Gobelins tapestry to make into seat covers. Edwin Lascelles supplied him with green silk damask for the furnishings of the state bedrooms and dressing-rooms at Harewood and the oriental lacquer for making the accmpanying furniture.

As well as providing a full range of services to his regular clients, Chippendale was also happy to supply 'off the peg' items to casual customers. In 1774, for example, Lady Irwin of Temple Newsam, one of the wealthiest women in the country, bought an elegant but plain 'Hexagon Table of very fine yellow sattin wood on a neat pillar & Claw' costing £4 14s. 6d.

Modern research to date has identified over seventy of Chippendale's clients, their patronage being documented in invoices, payments in account books and entries in bank ledgers. About 600 pieces of furniture can be attributed to his workshop on the basis of documentation or convincing stylistic affinities, substantially more than any of his London rivals.

After Chippendale's death in 1779, the business was carried on until well into the 19th century by his eldest son, also called Thomas Chippendale.

Fine examples of Chippendale's work can still be seen today at Harewood House, Temple Newsam, Newby Hall, Nostell Priory and Burton Constable Hall.

Chippendale is well remembered in his birthplace by the Chippendale Society, which was founded in 1963. The society holds an annual dinner and owns an important collection of furniture and documents, usually on display at Temple Newsam. Although there are no known likenesses of Chippendale, a bronze statue of Chippendale by Graham Ibbeson was erected in Otley in 1986. Another idealised statue of Chippendale adorns the west facade of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

External Links

The Chippendale Society
Thomas Chippendale at Harewood House
Wikipedia article on Thomas Chippendale




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