Exhibition Review

Thomas Chippendale

MIES VAN DER ROHE observed in 1957 that ‘A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous’. Three hundred years ago, on 5th June 1718, Thomas Chippendale was baptised in All Saints, Otley, twelve miles north-west of Leeds. Thanks to the Chippendale Society, founded in 1965 ‘to promote the appreciation and understanding of the work of Thomas Chippendale Senior and Junior’, the centrepiece of the tercentenary celebrations is an exhibition, Thomas Chippendale: A Celebration of British Craftsmanship and Design 1718–1779, at Leeds City Museum ( to 9th June). It was opened by Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, who may have wondered why his own institution, as the national museum of art and design, had not staged a much grander retrospective, especially as Chippendale was the sole cabinetmaker to be honoured with a statue on the museum’s façade, unveiled in 1906.

Chippendale gave his name to an era that has subsequently been regarded as the pinnacle of achievement of British furniture. Although doubtless a fine craftsman, his genius lay in the design of beautiful, sophisticated and elegantly proportioned furniture and in the orchestration of specialists to create it. A gifted entrepreneur, by December 1753 he was established at the heart of the London furniture-making district in St Martin’s Lane, offering a complete house-furnishing and decorating service as well as specialising in bespoke commissions. His son, Thomas Chippendale Jr (1749–1822), assisted his father and inherited the firm. Chippendale was also an accomplished draughtsman. His enduring fame is due to the publication in 1754 of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, a compendium of his ‘elegant and useful’ furniture designs ‘in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern [Rococo] Taste’. This immediately influential book was reprinted, expanded to reflect the fashion for neo-Classicism in 1762 and translated into French. It spawned a host of imitations and revivals of interest in the ‘Chippendale’ style, a point well made in the exhibition.

The display space, on the top floor of the museum, has no ceiling, with rafters and pipework visible above the low walls, painted graphite grey. There could be no greater contrast to the palatial interiors of the houses for which Chippendale designed furniture, such as Harewood House, Newby Hall or Nostell Priory. However, the simple installation and effective lighting make a virtue of necessity, allowing close inspection of the furniture, which is often impossible in a historic setting. Interesting juxtapositions encourage comparisons of style and craftsmanship. The catalogue contains a fully illustrated entry for each exhibit as well as essays.1 A substantial addition to Chippendale scholarship, with much new photography, it is the first major publication on its subject since Christopher Gilbert’s two-volume monograph of 1978.

The curators, Adam Bowett, Melissa Gallimore and James Lomax, have achieved a representative overview of Chippendale and his international influence with a variety of well-chosen loans that include drawings, engravings, books, documents, memorabilia, ephemera, wallpaper, silks and picture frames. The finest furniture is complemented by the utilitarian, since all are united by Chippendale’s care for good design, use of the best materials and the quality of his craftsmanship. A simple brass-banded octagonal mahogany wine cooler from Paxton House, Berwickshire (c.1776; cat. no.6.10), stands next to one of the grandest wine coolers ever made, of mahogany lavishly mounted in gilt bronze, from Harewood (c.1771; no.6.11). Both form part of an ensemble and reflect the different requirements of Chippendale’s clients. His plain mahogany furniture, such as one of a pair of card-cum-pier tables made for Dumfries House, Aberdeenshire (1759; no.2.3), demonstrates an understated refinement in his choice of fine wood and unerring eye for line and form.

The exhibition raises questions of attribution by including undocumented pieces. For example, the backs of two mahogany dining chairs derived from Plate XII of the 1754 Director are displayed side by side. One chair is from the well-documented collection at Nostell (no.1.12), so was presumably supplied by Chippendale, whose first commissions there were invoiced in June 1766, whereas the other is by an anonymous provincial maker (c.1765, Leeds Museums and Galleries; no.1.13). The Nostell chair has all the crispness of the Chippendale firm’s brilliant carving, the other is of middling quality.

The exhibits cover the entire range of styles used by Chippendale. Several library chairs illustrate variations on transitional Neo-classical design, beginning with a lyre-back chair from the library at Nostell, invoiced 1768 (no.6.5; Fig.12), which appears somewhat squat and over-decorated when compared to its successors. A similar crowding of Neo-classical motifs is evident in the frame, after a design by Robert Adam, of a gilded armchair (1765; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; no.5.2) from the palatial suite made for the London house of an art-loving tycoon, Sir Lawrence Dundas. Chinoiserie is represented by plain mahogany fretwork hanging shelves from Paxton House (1774; no.3.7) as well as a much richer green japanned commode table from Nostell (c.1771; no.3.4) and a fall-front secretaire (1773; Temple Newsam House, Yorkshire; no.3.8) made for Harewood, inlaid with black and gold Chinese lacquer. French influence is highlighted by the loan from the Tapestry Room at Newby of a magnificent giltwood tapestry-covered chair (c.1774; nos.6.12 and 6.13; Fig.10), together with an overdoor panel of Gobelins tapestry, framed by Chippendale in carved giltwood, like the rest of the tapestries.

At Harewood, Chippendale’s most valuable commission, Robert Adam was in overall control, as at Newby and Nostell. In 1767 Chippendale travelled to York to make designs for the furniture, which suggests a previous connection with the city before his move to London by 1748. A giltwood crane, standing on one leg (Chippendale Society; no.2.8), was felt to be an appropriate ‘Emblem of Care and Watchfulness’ for the cresting of a Rococo giltwood canopied daybed made in 1769. The bed (not exhibited) was acquired by Bradford City Museums for Bolling Hall, where it has been reunited with the crane and other remnants of the 13. Cabinet, one of a pair made for Melbourne House, London, by Thomas Chippendale. c.1773. Mahogany and various woods, 238 by 114 by 53 cm. (The Trustees of the Firle Estate Settlement; exh. Leeds City Museum). canopy given to the Chippendale Society by the late Lord Harewood.

Chippendale’s exuberance in creating Rococo and Chinoiserie fantasies had to adapt to a stricter Neo-classical ornamental vocabulary as fashion changed. His magnificent marquetry-topped tables for two lost interiors at Harewood, the Yellow Damask Sitting Room (no.6.17; Fig.11) and the Circular Dressing Room (c.1772; Chippendale Society; no.6.18) are eccentrically shaped, with narrow tops supported on thin tapering legs. The table for the Yellow Damask Room was originally silvered, whereas that for the Circular Dressing Room preserves much of its blue, pink and white paint. The repetitive Antique-inspired ornament of the friezes, formerly with swags beneath, is carved so precisely that variations in proportion are impossible to differentiate. The highly accomplished Neo-classical marquetry, incorporating ivory, of the Yellow Damask Sitting Room pier tabletop equals the best in Europe of this date, and – remarkably – preserves its original colouring, so often faded. One of the pair of splendid glazed and marquetry cabinets formerly at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, is exhibited containing some of the Sèvres porcelain service made in 1770–71 that was acquired in Paris by Sir Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne (no.6.19; Fig.13). Rosalind Savill’s suggestion that the cabinets were designed not to house books but to display this valuable service seems entirely convincing.

No exhibition could do justice to the unified grandeur in which Chippendale’s furniture played and still plays a prominent role. Although many magical interiors disappeared as fashion changed, as at Harewood, a remarkable tally survives, including Dumfries House, Newby, Nostell and Paxton. A mahogany ‘French’ armchair from a set of ten, originally covered in blue moreen (1767; Nostell Priory; no.2.5), and two carved and gilded picture frames from the forty-one supplied to Nostell by Chippendale in 1768 (private collection; no.7.20) were designed and made for Lady Winn’s Blue Dressing Room. They hint at the possibility of recreating that fully documented ‘lost’ interior, begun by James Paine, in which Chippendale played the leading role, working with Adam and Antonio Zucchi.

Under the umbrella of the tercentenary celebrations, ‘Chippendale 300’, there are many displays of Chippendale furniture at houses where he worked, but the Chippendale Society is to be congratulated on taking such a creditable lead with this exhibition, a remarkable achievement for an organisation of 250 members, with limited resources.2

1 Catalogue: Thomas Chippendale 1718–1779: A Celebration of British Craftsmanship and Design: Catalogue of the Tercentenary Exhibition. By Adam Bowett and James Lomax. 208 pp. incl. 280 ills. (The Chippendale Society, Bradford 2018), £65. ISBN 978–1–999922–91–7.

2 For a full list of the tercentenary displays and events, visit chippendale300.co.uk.