Chippendale and his Director

First issued in 1754, Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director was both the first and most influential English furniture design book of the 18th century. Although it is impossible to ascertain how many of the designs contained within the Director were in fact created by Chippendale himself and how many were re-workings of pre-existing ideas, the creation of the pattern book was a stroke of marketing genius, ensuring Chippendale’s own immortality and linking his name forever with the highest standards of craftsmanship and artistry in the production of English furniture.

The Director was a great commercial success, running to three editions in England and even being re-published in French – a great accolade during a period of particular Anglo-French rivalry. The list of subscribers to Chippendale’s book included many prominent members of the aristocracy and it attracted the attention of celebrity clients including David Garrick. However, its commercial success has created difficulties for the modern furniture historian. Listed amongst the original subscribers to the publication were rival firms of cabinet makers and there is no doubt that the designs contained within were disseminated very widely throughout Britain, and the American colonies, soon after they were issued. As might be imagined, the widespread adoption of Chippendale’s inventive new designs has led to problems of attribution and it is certainly not the case that a piece that conforms entirely to a design published in the Director is necessarily the product of the master’s workshop.

In the Mackinnon archive is a pair of hall chairs that epitomises the elegance of mid-18th century design. The backs and dished seats of the chairs are clearly inspired by plate XVII of the 3rd (1762) edition of the Director:

In addition to their beautiful design, the chairs also have an exceptional colour and patina which is the result of years of use and polishing, aided by the quality of the timber in the first place.

Chippendale’s designs included items in the fashionable “Chinese” style. Great houses such as Woburn Abbey, Claydon and Saltram had rooms in the main house or pavilions in the gardens decorated in this style, popularised by the architect Sir William Chambers’ Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils published in 1757. Some exceptional furniture was produced in this style and the 3rd edition of the Director included many designs with chinoiserie elements.

Clearly based on Chippendale’s designs for pagoda chairs, we were fortunate enough to handle this masterpiece of English design:

This truly exceptional chair has everything that a collector would look for in an important new acquisition. Illustrated in The Dictionary of English Furniture, it was part of the celebrated Leopold Hirsch Collection, dispersed in 1934, has amazing depth of colour and fine patination and the use of multiple forms of ornament in the design is masterful. Despite almost every surface incorporating carved detail, the result is remarkably balanced and effective. Whether Chippendale himself was involved in the manufacture of this chair or not, it was certainly made by a chair-maker of extraordinary talent.

In our current collection we have an extremely interesting pair of armchairs that seem to take inspiration both from plates VI-VIII of the 1st edition of the Director and from Robert Manwaring’s The Cabinet and Chair-maker’s Real Friend and Companion – a rival pattern book published in 1765:

These chairs demonstrate how the best workshops of the time could combine design sources to create a coherent, and original, new design. The combination of “Chinese” fretwork and leaf-work ornament is extremely unusual but beautifully judged. The leaf carving on the terminals of the arms is an especially pleasing feature but this is a design that rewards repeated viewing – a new detail seems to emerge with every look.

The rococo designs associated with the first edition of Chippendale’s Director are perhaps most successfully realised in his designs for mirrors. Along with his contemporaries Matthias Lock and Thomas Johnson, Chippendale helped to introduce a lightness of touch and dazzling variety of ornament. We have a girandole in our current collection that illustrates this very well and bears significant similarities to pieces produced by Chippendale’s workshop for Dumfries House amongst other notable

The Director included designs for almost every conceivable piece of household furniture but sometimes the influences drawn from the book may be as subtle as the use of similar decorative treatments. This extremely unusual tallboy or chest on chest dates from what has come to be called the “Chippendale period” but is likely to have been made by a different London maker-Philip Bell. The design used for the fretwork relates to designs in the Director and the exceptional escutcheons look like miniature rococo
girandoles in the style of Chippendale or Thomas Johnson (see our girandole in the previous illustration):

Much of Chippendale’s documented surviving furniture is neo-classical in style and not in the rococo style with which his name is so strongly associated. Commissions for such patrons as Edwin Lascelles at Harewood House and Sir Rowland Winn at Nostell Priory were largely completed in this later style under the direction of Robert Adam. We had in our collection a beautiful giltwood settee of circa 1775 which was almost certainly made for Denton Hall in Chippendale’s home district of Otley in Yorkshire. The settee is likely to be the one pictured in situ in a 1939 Country Life article on the Hall by Christopher Hussey:

The decoration on the settee is very delicate and a real sign of quality is the fact that the carving is continued on the back of the piece. The surviving accounts for Denton Hall record payments to Gillows, Ince and Mayhew and Chippendale, with the latter’s bill of over £500 being more than twice as much as that submitted by Gillow. Certainly our settee is of fine enough quality to have been one of the pieces supplied by Chippendale’s firm.

We have a pair of pier tables in our collection that have passed through some of the most illustrious dealerships in London in the past. They were chosen by O. F. Wilson to be their illustrated piece in the 1986 Grosvenor House Antiques Fair catalogue, from whom they were acquired by Jeremy Ltd. of Belgravia. They were later acquired by Mallett & Son of New Bond Street and featured in both of Lanto Synge’s Mallett Great English Furniture and Mallett Millennium. Although the tables had always been believed to have been part of the furnishings at Wilton House, the stately home of the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, it was only this year that we were able to establish that provenance beyond any dispute. The tables were sold in
1960 but were mis-catalogued as French Empire examples. The tables have very distinctive carved decorative ornament and fossilised marble tops and it was these specific details that allowed us to solve this mystery.

As with Denton Hall, Chippendale had links with the Earls of Pembroke, and one of his most celebrated surviving pieces, the so-called violin bookcase, survives at Wilton House to this day. Our tables have extremely similarly-decorated legs to those on a pier table, supplied to Appuldurcombe on the Isle of Wight -also attributed to Chippendale.

Further reading:
Adam Bowett and James Lomax, Thomas Chippendale 1718-1779: A Celebration of British Craftsmanship and Design
Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Works of Thomas Chippendale
Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture: The Works of Thomas Chippendale and his Contemporaries in the Rococo Style
Elizabeth White, Pictorial Dictionary of British 18th Century Furniture Design: The Printed Sources

All photographs in the above article represent pieces either in the Mackinnon Fine Furniture current collection, or from our archive collection. If you are interested in any of the pieces, please do not hesitate to get in contact with us:


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