Thomas Chippendale – “The Shakespeare of Furniture”
If you ask people to name a famous furniture designer – Thomas Chippendale would be one of the first names that sprang to mind. This Yorkshire lad has left a global legacy and his works are collected around the world, now fetching millions of pounds in some cases at auction.
So let’s explore Chippendale’s Yorkshire links from his early days to the furnishing of some of Yorkshire’s grandest stately homes.
Thomas Chippendale was born in 1718 in the West Yorkshire market town of Otley and received an elementary education at Otley’s Prince Henry’s Grammar School . He would have learnt some basic wood working skills from his father who was a joiner and he also spent some time in York learning about the furniture production under the guidance of Richard Wood (seriously good name for a woodworker!).
There is not a lot known about his early career, but we do now that he left Yorkshire for “that” London when he was 30. Success seems to have come very quickly as a wealthy Scottish merchant called James Rannie invested in his business allowing a rapid growth and allowed him to set up shop in the fashionable St.Martin’s Lane furniture making district.
Whilst Thomas Chippendale started physically making bespoke furniture himself when he arrived in London, his real skill was design. His success is said to be based on being able to tap into the current fashion for “Anglicised Rococo and Neoclassical style” furniture. As well as stunning design skills his success can also be put down to managing people as he soon left production to skilled tradesmen such as carvers and gilders who he directed.
“He understood the relationship between design and craftsmanship”
He soon was running a workshop employing over 50 people and had expanded to employing carpet makers and upholsterers.
Remember that this was the opulent Georgian period, where there was much wealth around and a high demand for luxury goods, particularly from wealthy landed gentry who were rebuilding their stately homes as symbols of their importance and success.
Thomas Chippendale understood this demand and took pride in the quality of his furniture, his mission to produce beautiful designs using the best materials. But, he also knew how to charge and his prices were accordingly high!
Part of his legacy also revolves around the publication of his influential book – The Gentleman and Cabinet Makers Director. This was the most important book of its type and contained a catalogue of designs for superbly made elegant furniture.
Illustrated almost every type of “Household” furniture
Contained over 160 plates
Was reprinted many times
Translated into French
Became highly influential in Europe and America
By the 3rd edition Thomas Chippendale made the book subscription only and it was limited to 400 copies being subscribed to by aristocracy as well as fellow tradesmen. Not only did the book bring in a huge income in its own right but the publicity from it brought in many lucrative commissions.
Orders were placed straight from the Director and bespoke pieces could be commissioned at premium prices. This International fame stood Chippendale apart from the competition and he was the most sought after furniture designer of the era.
Whilst Thomas Chippendale never returned to Yorkshire to live, his work can be seen in many of the stately homes and treasure houses of the region. His most famous Yorkshire commissions being:
Harewood House – Chippendale produced a wealth of furniture for Edwin Lascelles as part of interior designer Robert Adam’s grand scheme. Lascelles wanted nothing but the best for his new home and the house contains a wealth of Chippendale furniture and was his biggest ever commission.
The State Bed at Harewood House
Nostell Priory – Sir Roland Winn, the owner who was introduced to Chippendale by Robert Adam, who then helped completely furnish the grand 1st floor to proclaim his own sophistication. Chippendale was also responsible for the decoration as well as furnishing. The house has one of the largest Chippendale collections in the country.
Temple Newsam – this Jacobean country mansion contains a number of neoclassical pieces which were produced for Lord Irwin. It is now home to the Chippendale Society Collection.
Burton Constable Hall – in East Yorkshire dates to the 1560’s and where Chippendale produced chairs to complement the owners collection of William Constable paintings
Newby Hall – Chippendale was commissioned to provide the sofas and chairs to fit around a room of expensive Gobelin tapestries owner William Weddell had ordered from Paris. Now the only known pieces of Chippendale furniture known to have retained their original upholstery and covers.
Chippendale died in 1779, having later in his life become known for his full interior design service as well as his furniture. His one regret was that he never managed to clinch a royal commission.
There was never a portrait of Thomas Chippendale so we do not know what he looked like, but a statue was commissioned of Chippendale and stands outside the Old Grammar School in Otley in honour of one of Otley's famous sons.