Is There Such a Thing as ‘Chippendale Style’?

Decorative ARts. Leonard Joel Auctions

The short answer to the question posed above is ‘no’.

Why, then, is the description ‘Chippendale style’ so often seen in auction house and dealers’ catalogues across the world? The answer to that question is, in short, clever marketing on Mr Chippendale’s part.

Decorative Arts. Leonard Joel Auctions
Wilton House, Salisbury, Wiltshire. Interior with Wilton Violin Bookcase by Thomas Chippendale, circa 1763 / Alamy

Born into a woodworking family in west Yorkshire, Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) was apprenticed as a joiner within his family. He moved to London in the 1740s, doubtless ambitious to share in the opportunities presented by the rapid growth at this time of both England’s cities and towns and its moneyed class. In the early 1750s he set himself up as a cabinet-maker in the artists’ and artisans’ district of Covent Garden. At this early stage, Chippendale was but one of many holding themselves out to furnish the homes – particularly the new country houses – of the fashion-conscious wealthy who would visit the district to shop around amongst firms before spending their money. In a market led by fashionable firms enjoying royal and aristocratic patronage, Chippendale was little known and without a significant commission to his name.  

Decorative Arts. Leonard Joel Auctions
Design for pierced and
carved back chairs, copper engraving from Thomas Chippendale’s
‘The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director,’ London, England, 1762
/ Alamy

Chippendale dramatically changed this situation in 1754 with an audacious move to stake his claim in the market that succeeded in elevating his name above all others and came to exert wide and lasting influence on furniture and design in England and beyond. In that year, with the financial backing of others, Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director. Being a Large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese, and Modern Taste. This magnificent folio work comprises 161 finely engraved plates, most of which illustrate designs for a range of furniture types from library book-cases down to wall brackets, all in a variety of styles.  

The Director was an immediate success. Chippendale issued a second edition in 1755 and, in instalments from 1759 to 1762, a third edition with new designs added, partly in response to rivals attempting to replicate his success with their own books. Through these, and copies of its plates, the Director’s designs – all of which bear Chippendale’s name as their ‘inventor’ – were widely disseminated and used in Britain and America.

A Pair of Queen Anne
Parcel-Gilt Walnut Side Chairs
Early 18th Century (1 of 2)
Sold for $4,750

Anybody generally familiar with mid-Georgian furniture would immediately see a relationship between commonly seen designs and details of the period, such as the pierced and interlaced splat back of a ‘Chippendale chair’, and designs in the Director. It is here that the misconception of ‘Chippendale style’ arises for the connection between Chippendale’s designs and furniture of the period too readily obscures a critical point: that there is, in fact, very little in the Director that is truly original to Chippendale. Virtually all of what he presented in it – both the forms of furniture and the various mix-and-match ‘tastes’ in which it was styled, including ‘modern’ (meaning an English adaptation of contemporary French taste) – represented ideas that had been evolving and used in England by leading makers and others for some years before Chippendale adopted them in print. Chippendale’s real contribution – his master stroke – was in collecting up and promoting these ideas by presenting them in convenient pattern-book form as an array of alternatives for wide dissemination, an aim he implies in his preface to the Director.

Chippendale was greatly successful in that intention. It earned him important commissions (resulting in the relatively small amount of fine furniture that can correctly be given his name), fame, and an undeniable place in furniture history. 

But no, he did not create the mid-Georgian style to which his name is so often attached.

DAVID PARSONS / Head of Decorative Arts 

Banner Image (detail): Wilton House, Salisbury, Wiltshire. Interior with Wilton Violin Bookcase by Thomas Chippendale, circa 1763 / Alamy

March 2022