Thomas Chippendale was a furniture maker of the mid to late 18th century. He was probably born in 1718 but there is no record of his birth, only his baptism in that year. He was the son of an Otley, Yorkshire, England carpenter and most likely an apprentice to his father. There are no records of his early life and training but by 1753 he was established in London as a furniture maker. In 1754 he published the first of three editions of his Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, a catalogue of English furniture design. This book is probably the major reason he is one of the world's best-known furniture makers ever.
The description Chippendale has been applied to much of the well-made, English furniture of the 18th century. This is not because the furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale or his factory but because the word Chippendale has become synonymous with a distinguishable style. Surviving furniture actually made by Thomas Chippendale would be rare to the extreme and would require a verifiable provenance. Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director is the picture book of the Chippendale style. This catalogue allowed wealthy patrons to pick out particular elements for their furniture and the furniture would then be custom made for them by the Chippendale workshop. The Chippendale style reflected many elements of the Rococo, Chinese, Gothic and, later, the Neoclassical styles.
The Chippendale style didn't remain within the confines of the Chippendale workshops very long. So popular were the designs with the wealthy class of the mid-18th century that soon other furniture makers were using Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director as a pattern book for their shops, too. The patterns were not really entirely the creation of Thomas Chippendale, but improved, stylized or modernized versions of popular existing patterns.
When we talk about Chippendale furniture today, what we are really talking about is well-constructed, mid- to late-18th century furniture of the Chippendale style. Wood used in this style of furniture was generally mahogany. Though veneers were used for furniture of this period, they are not typical of the Chippendale style. Solid wood was used to accommodate the elaborate carving found in this style. Modern reproductions of the Chippendale style will often be hand carved but will not have the depth and detail of carving that genuine 18th century furniture has.
Another feature of 18th century wood furniture is its irregularity. All the work on this furniture was done by hand and often quite exquisitely. However, handwork, no matter how well done, will not be able to match the exact regularity of machine work. When you examine a piece of wood furniture for the purpose of determining its age, look at the joinery closely. It will reveal a lot about the history of the piece. Hand crafted joints will be slightly irregular and may evidence tool marks, too. Finishes on wood furniture can help reveal its age, too. Many techniques exist to falsely age or distress finishes and unscrupulous furniture forgers use them so don't rely on the appearance of a finish alone to judge the age of a piece of furniture. With age, wood takes on what is called a patina. Patina is the warm, mellow, aged look that wood gets from being touched, lived with, polished and cared for. It's something you must see to appreciate. It takes study to understand the different kinds of patination that different woods take on over time. If you intend to invest money in antique furniture, you must spend time learning about the kind of furniture you intend to buy. Local museums are a great place to start. They give you a wonderful opportunity to study authentic antique period furniture and patination up close. If what you are after is finding a nice, 18th century Chippendale style chair, you must learn the anatomy of a Chippendale style chair.
The legs of an antique chair are revealing. There are six different basic Chippendale style legs. These are the lion's paw, the ball and claw, the late Chippendale, the Marlborough, the club and the spade. Picture books will give you an idea what each looks like but three of the styles are based on the cabriole shape which is an elegant, serpentine style ending in a distinctive foot. These include the lion's paw, which ends with a lion paw shaped foot, the club, which is a simple round foot and the ball and claw, which (not surprisingly) looks like a claw holding a ball. The remaining leg styles are straight with the Marlborough being a plain, square leg; the spade a tapered round leg often with a square or trapezoid foot and the late Chippendale having a square leg with a square foot. There are many variations on the basic leg styles but close observation will reveal the basic pattern. If carving is present, and it most likely will be to some degree, it will be detailed and deeply cut. Leg joints will be precisely done with evidence of handwork.
Check for repairs where the leg and seat frame meet. Sometimes, chair legs will have been cut down at the bottom to a shorter stature and this lessens the value of the chair. Stretchers are the horizontal rungs between chair legs. They are sometimes present in Chippendale style chairs. These, too, will be well joined, show evidence of handwork and will often be carved. Seats on Chippendale style chairs may be wood, upholstered or caned. One way to check if the upholstery is original is to look at the way it is attached. Are other holes present that would indicate previous upholstery? New upholstery can easily hide holes so don't rely on this method entirely. A textile specialist can determine if the fabric is right for the period, too. Where the legs meet the seat, there will generally be supports called glue blocks. These may have been replaced during the life of the chair, check to see how they are joined. The chair backs will vary by the intended purpose of the chair. There are upholstered backs, rail backs, ladder backs, rung backs, splat backs, carved backs and in the case of stools and window seats, no backs. Look for the same kind of quality in the backs that you expect in the rest of the chair. Carvings will be deep, crisp and detailed. Often there will be piercing, where the solid wood has been pierced through as part of the back detail. One popular splat (back support) type is the lyre shape. Joinery will be well done and show evidence of handwork.
There are many variations on the Chippendale theme but one thing you can be sure of is that if you find a genuine 18th century Chippendale style chair in an antique shop, you are going to pay thousands of dollars for it. If it's not appropriately priced, the dealer knows that it's not 18th century. Take great care in purchasing antiques of this quality and expense. A reputable dealer will give you a written guarantee that the piece is authentic and the guarantee will include a detailed description of the piece and its provenance. If your budget is modest but your taste is expensive, you can buy very fine quality modern reproduction Chippendale style chairs that will appreciate in value over the years. As with any major investment, though, know exactly what you are buying before you write the check.
Happy hunting for that perfect chair :)
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