Thomas Chippendale

Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), an English cabinetmaker, was one of the most distinguished of all furniture designers. His "Director" was the first comprehensive design book for furniture ever to appear, and it remains probably the most important.

The son of a joiner and the grandson of a carpenter, Thomas Chippendale was born at Otley, Yorkshire, on June 5, 1718. There is a tradition that as a young apprentice he made the dollhouse at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, and also worked at Farnley Hall near Otley. He moved to London and married in 1748; his eldest son, also named Thomas, was born in 1749. In 1753 Chippendale went into partnership with James Rannie and took residence on St. Martin's Lane, where he remained until his death.

Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director appeared in 1754. This work, containing 160 plates and some descriptive notes, was intended to serve as a trade catalog and guide to clients. Its special significance is that it forms an important expression of the gay and lively rococo taste which became fashionable in the mid-18th century in the reaction against the somewhat ponderous character of early Georgian furniture. All three aspects of the rococo style were represented: the French, the Gothic, and the Chinese. At one time it was believed that many of the designs in the Director were not the work of Chippendale, but Anthony Coleridge (1968) suggests Chippendale himself was responsible for the original drawings. The Director was so successful that a second edition appeared in 1755 and a third edition, revised and enlarged, in 1762.

One of Chippendale's important early commissions was the furnishing of Dumfries House in Scotland in 1759. This house was the first independent work of the architect Robert Adam, and it was probably here that the long association between the two men began. Both were members of the Society of Arts, to which Chippendale was elected in 1760.

The Director was the principal inspiration behind the characteristic mahogany furniture of the mid-18th century, and Chippendale's designs were used, often in greatly simplified form, by innumerable provincial and rural craftsmen. The most distinguished furniture produced from the Chippendale workshops, however, was the handsome marquetry pieces inspired by the neoclassic designs of Robert Adam. It was for many years hotly debated whether Chippendale ever actually made furniture to the architect's designs, but that he did so is conclusively proved by Chippendale's bill of July 9, 1765, for the supply to Sir Lawrence Dundas of armchairs and sofas which correspond exactly to an Adam design dated 1765. It appears that henceforth Chippendale absorbed the Adam manner so successfully that the architect had the fullest confidence in leaving the design of movable articles to Chippendale, who supplied furniture in the neoclassic style to Harewood House, Newbey Hall, and Nostell Priory, all in Yorkshire, and to other houses with which Adam was concerned. The pair of important satinwood and mahogany marquetry china cabinets at Firle Place, Sussex, is in Chippendale's neoclassic style (ca. 1770).

Chippendale died in London in November 1779. His eldest son continued the family business.


Further Reading on Thomas Chippendale

The first monograph on Chippendale was Oliver Brackett, Thomas Chippendale: A Study of His Life, Work, and Influence (1924). This was superseded by the monumental study of Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture: The Work of Thomas Chippendale and His Contemporaries in the Rococo Taste (1968). Two volumes of selections of Chippendale designs were published by Alec Tiranti, with notes and preface by R. W. Symonds: Chippendale Furniture Designs (1948) and The Ornamental Designs of Chippendale (1949).

The first systematic account of Chippendale and his contemporaries was Ralph Edwards and Margaret Jourdain, Georgian Cabinet-Makers (1944; rev. ed. 1955); this work was partially superseded by later studies. Chippendale's designs are discussed in Peter Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs of the Eighteenth Century (1958). For the most comprehensive general account of Chippendale's furniture in the Adam style see Clifford Musgrave, Adam and Hepplewhite and Other NeoClassical Furniture (1966). Other useful works are Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles from 1500 to 1830 (1955), and Helena Hayward, ed., World Furniture: An Illustrated History (1965).


Additional Biography Sources

Gilbert, Christopher, The life and work of Thomas Chippendale, London: Studio Vista, 1978.