Thomas Chippendale

Cabinet-maker, designer and entrepreneur

Thomas Chippendale - Cabinet-maker, designer and entrepreneur

Starting out as a cabinet-maker in Yorkshire, Thomas Chippendale went on to supply Britain's 18th century elite clientele with the most fashionable furnishings. Rowland Winn, 5th baronet at Nostell, commissioned over 100 pieces of furniture from Chippendale’s firm, which can still be seen today in the grand interior worlds they were designed for.

The State Dressing Room at Nostell, West Yorkshire

Humble beginnings

In 1718 Thomas Chippendale was born in the Yorkshire village of Otley to a relatively humble family of carpenters and joiners. Growing up in an age of opportunity with increased wealth, new materials and new design ideas, he was clearly determined to take advantage of this and progress his status.

Firstly moving to York to work for a prominent furniture maker, Chippendale later went to London where he discovered his talent for drawing; an essential skill for becoming a top-notch designer.

Building a business  

In 1754 Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director, the most luxurious and comprehensive book of furniture designs ever created.  Following this, he set up new premises in fashionable St Martins Lane and soon became one of the most sought after suppliers of luxury furnishings.  

Chippendale provided a complete service to his elite clientele, ranging from single bespoke items of furniture to complete interiors as well as lots of odd jobs.

Chippendale produced three editions of his famous pattern book of furniture designs
The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director
Chippendale produced three editions of his famous pattern book of furniture designs

The Nostell commission

Chippendale probably became involved at Nostell by personal recommendation of the architect Robert Adam who had been taken on by Rowland Winn in the 1760s to finish Nostell in the latest taste.  

Winn had high political aspirations and completing Nostell was part of his plan to advance his family’s status. It was a game of ambition in which Thomas Chippendale was a willing player, hoping to get further recommendations by supplying the Winn family.

Winn used the full range of Chippendale’s services, ordering furniture in all the fashionable styles, from Rococo and Chinoiserie to Gothic and Neo-classical. Chippendale even provided a mangle for the laundry as well as dying old fabrics and fixing jammed doors. 

A rocky relationship

A rare collection of archive letters reveals that the Nostell commission proved to be very challenging with arguments over faulty goods and late payments. Winn was bad at paying bills, in part because he was financially overstretched. On the other hand, Chippendale sometimes failed to deliver on his promises and he angered Winn by pushing for payment.  

Thomas Chippendale's letters are normally stored at the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield
A letter written by Thomas Chippendale, held in Nostell's collection in the West Yorkshire Archive
Thomas Chippendale's letters are normally stored at the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield

From 2 May 2018, this collection of letters can be seen on display at Nostell in the Chippendale: the Man and the Brand exhibition. Although he is celebrated as 'the Shakespeare of furniture' today, you can see from this correspondence and the fact that there are no portraits of Chippendale, that he was considered in a very different league to the esteemed architect he worked with, Robert Adam.

Rowland Winn died in a coach accident in 1785 leaving the Nostell project only half completed and Chippendale’s firm hugely out of pocket with unpaid fees. 

A world-class collection 

Following Rowland Winn’s death, later generations of the family continued to develop the house using different designers and styles. Despite this, Nostell boasts some of the most important Chippendale in Britain, with over 100 items ranging from single pieces to complete interiors in the latest Chinese taste, from the humble to the luxurious.  

The range of styles and materials within Nostell’s collection showcase the spectrum of 18th century design and tell the wider stories about the world in which Chippendale lived and worked.