Who was Thomas Chippendale?
Starting out as a cabinet maker in Yorkshire, Thomas Chippendale went on to become one of the 18th century’s most fashionable furniture designers. Nearly 250 years after his death, the Chippendale name remains a byword for quality, with the brand’s superbly made pieces continuing to grace luxury homes around the world.
Thomas Chippendale was born in 1718 in the Yorkshire village of Otley. His family were carpenters and joiners, and so Chippendale may have received an apprenticeship from a family member, but it's possible that he was also apprenticed to a furniture-maker in York.
Chippendale eventually went to London, working as both a furniture-maker and designer.
Building the Chippendale brand
By 1754, the self-proclaimed ‘cabinet- maker and upholsterer’ had set up business at 59–61 St Martin’s Lane, in the heart of London’s furniture-making district. The premises contained not only Chippendale’s workshops but also a home for his growing family.
Employing around 50 craftsmen, Chippendale offered a range of services to his elite clientele, from creating single bespoke items of furniture to designing and installing complete interiors.
Around this time, he also published a book of his furniture designs entitled The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. Not only was the book one of the earliest works of its kind in Britain, but it also became highly influential in Europe and America, encouraging a variety of interpretations of the ‘Chippendale’ style and, occasionally, dubious attributions.
The Nostell commission
Chippendale probably became involved at Nostell in West Yorkshire as the result of a recommendation by the architect Robert Adam, who’d been hired by Sir Rowland Winn in the 1760s to finish the house in the latest style.
Winn had high political aspirations, and completing Nostell was part of his plan to advance his family’s position. It was a game of ambition in which Chippendale was a willing player, the furniture-maker hoping to further enhance his reputation through his work for the Winn family.
A rocky relationship
Sir Rowland was always mindful of his higher rank, and Chippendale’s failure to deliver furniture on time meant that the two men were never on friendly terms. The correspondence between Chippendale and his patron reveals much about their characters and offers a rare insight into the workings of Chippendale’s firm.
The cost of promotional publications, large premises, imported materials and highly-skilled employees were exacerbated both by a fire at his workshop in 1755, and delayed payments from many of his clients: when he died in 1779, he left no great fortune but his son, Thomas Chippendale Junior, carried on his father’s illustrious business into the 19th century.
Through his beautiful creations, Chippendale has left an indelible mark on the world of furniture design – a fitting legacy to a man who strived hard to better himself in the tough environment of 18th-century England.
This article contains information written by Christopher Rowell, Furniture Curator and Chairman of the Furniture History Society.
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