Discovering Thomas Chippendale at Nostell

The library at Nostell

2018 marks the tercentenary of British furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779).

300 years after his birth, his name is a byword for quality and style. His legacy depends upon his superbly made, elegant furniture and upon the lavish publication of his own designs.

Christopher Rowell, the Trust’s Furniture Curator, considers this remarkable figure whose reputation for excellence in design and craftsmanship is now greater than in his lifetime.

A family of joiners

Surprisingly little is known about Chippendale himself or of his training and early career. We don’t know what he looked like – no portrait exists. Even the precise date of his birth went unrecorded.

We do know that his father and grandfather were joiners. Chippendale must have been a good
craftsman, but his genius was for design and for orchestrating the work of exceptionally talented specialists in fields such as carving and gilding.

The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director

Chippendale was an imaginative and vigorous entrepreneur. By 1754, the self-proclaimed ‘Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’ was prosperous enough to move into premises in the heart of the London furniture-making district at 59–61 St Martin’s Lane. This was where he had his workshops, probably employing up to 50 craftsmen, and where he lived with his growing family.

It was also in 1754 that he published his furniture designs in his influential book 'The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director'. Its list of subscribers ranged from the aristocracy to fellow tradesmen. It was later reprinted, expanded and translated into French.

The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, published in 1754, on a bookshelf in the Library at Nostell
The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director, published in 1754, on a bookshelf designed by Chippendale at Nostell, Yorkshire
The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, published in 1754, on a bookshelf in the Library at Nostell

Chippendale’s 'Director' was not only one of the earliest works of its kind in Britain, but was also highly influential in Europe and America. It encouraged a variety of interpretations of the ‘Chippendale’ style. It also led to difficulties of attribution, because any competent craftsman could make furniture by following Chippendale’s engravings. Many such copies are very well made, with most being 19th century or later, when there was a revivalist surge of interest in his work.

The Nostell commission

By the time Chippendale was employed at Nostell in the mid-1760s, taste was moving towards Neo-Classicism. Chippendale’s patron at Nostell, Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet (1739-1785), was a dedicated follower of fashion with an international outlook, having travelled and been educated abroad. He wanted the grand first floor of Nostell to proclaim his own sophistication, so he was determined to employ the most forwardlooking and innovative advisers.

The presiding genius at Nostell was the Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam (1728–92), who derived his style from first-hand study of ancient Roman interior decoration. Adam was then the most fashionable architect in the country and it is likely he introduced Chippendale to Sir Rowland Winn, who in turn recommended him to his friends. Adam expected Chippendale not only to make furniture after his designs but also to produce complementary pieces.

'Your most obedient humble servant'

Chippendale’s commission at Nostell is exceptionally well documented by a substantial archive. The correspondence between Chippendale and his patron reveals much about the characters of both, and offers a rare insight into the workings of Chippendale’s firm. 

A letter to Sir Rowland Winn from Thomas Chippendale, signed 'your most obedient humble servant'
A letter written by Thomas Chippendale, held in Nostell's collection in the West Yorkshire Archive
A letter to Sir Rowland Winn from Thomas Chippendale, signed 'your most obedient humble servant'

Sir Rowland was always mindful of his higher rank, and Chippendale’s failure to deliver furniture on time meant that they were never on friendly terms.The commission was, however, a valuable one, with Chippendale’s firm supplying everything that the Winns needed to furnish and decorate their house. 

Lady Winn's writing table

The earliest identifiable piece made for Nostell is the elegant French-inspired ‘Lady’s commode writing table’ which was supplied in June 1766. Its ‘slider’ or fire screen adjusts up and down, protecting the writer from the heat of a fire. It was made for Sir Rowland’s wife, Sabine d’Hervart (1734–98), a Swiss baroness.

A lady's writing table, 1766, made by Thomas Chippendale for Sabine, Lady Winn / NT 959738
Lady Winn's writing table
A lady's writing table, 1766, made by Thomas Chippendale for Sabine, Lady Winn / NT 959738

'Exceeding fine wood'

Sir Rowland and Lady Winn shared a taste for beautifully designed bespoke furniture. Chippendale in turn took considerable pride in its quality. His charges were high, but justifiably so, given the finesse of his products, which combined beautiful design with the highest quality of materials and craftsmanship.

The Winns’ clothes presses –  wardrobes retaining their original oak slides lined with marbled paper on which to lay clothes flat – are made from the choicest mahogany, cut to display its figuring. Lady Winn’s is distinguished by what Chippendale called ‘its exceeding fine wood’ and was twice as expensive as the one made for her husband.

Lady Winn's mahogany clothes press, at right, in the Crimson Room at Nostell / NT 959763
Lady Winn's clothes press
Lady Winn's mahogany clothes press, at right, in the Crimson Room at Nostell / NT 959763

All Chippendale’s furniture had to be transported nearly 200 miles from London to Nostell, either by wagon on bad roads or by sea. Chippendale preferred the more expensive land route because, as he warned Rowland Winn, ‘The damp of the ship affects the drawers and locks of good work which is made very close.’ 

The Library at Nostell

In 1767, Sir Rowland and his wife commissioned a double portrait from Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740 – 1808). The Winns are depicted standing in their new Library, designed by Adam and furnished by Chippendale. Prominent is Chippendale’s ‘library table’ of carved mahogany, one of his masterpieces, which was supplied in 1766-7.

Chippendale and Chinoiserie

By contrast, Chippendale fitted out the State Bedroom and Dressing Room in the then popular Chinoiserie style, supplying Chinese painted wallpaper, painted cotton hangings, a four-post bed, seat and cabinet furniture, pier and overmantel glasses, all in green japanning (imitating Oriental lacquer) and gold. The colour of the japanned surfaces has now faded, except where it has been hidden from the light, revealing the original brightness and sparkle.

Activities this year

This year’s Chippendale exhibition at Nostell encompasses the furniture-maker’s designs, drawings and archival material, which show off his working methods, craftsmanship and the care with which his pieces were fitted into carefully tailored interior decoration.

On 5 June, the Trust’s Furniture Research & Cataloguing Project will also launch an online exhibition, ‘Chippendale Revealed’, which includes specially commissioned photography showing unseen elements of his furniture. Taken together, the National Trust’s Chippendale collection is probably the largest and most wide-ranging in the world, and the online exhibition allows us to make this available to as wide an audience as possible.

I hope that this brief account will encourage readers to visit Nostell in this anniversary year as well as other National Trust houses, where I am sure there are discoveries still to be made.

View of the Chippendale library at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire

Celebrating 300 years of Chippendale 

We're marking the 300th anniversary of Thomas Chippendale, the renowned furniture-maker, with a series of events and exhibitions online and at Nostell in West Yorkshire where his collection is outstanding.