Thomas Chippendale Snr: ‘The Shakespeare of English furniture makers’

International Head of Furniture Robert Copley and Ann Sumner, Historic Collections Adviser to Harewood House Trust, discuss the life and legacy of the legendary cabinet-maker and furniture designer


Left: detail of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (photo credit: Alamy). Right: a statue of Thomas Chippendale erected in his home town, Otley in Yorkshire

Who was Thomas Chippendale?

Robert Copley, Christie’s International Head of Furniture:Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) is without question Britain’s greatest cabinet-maker. He excelled in every style he worked in, from the whimsical rococo and the fashion for all things Chinese in his early career, to the neoclassical with its straight lines derived from the ancient world. His reputation spread far beyond the shores of his homeland, and his genius is reflected in the number of beautifully designed and executed pieces of furniture that survive in excellent condition nearly 250 years after his death.’

What do we know of his early life?

Ann Sumner, Historic Collections Adviser, Harewood House Trust, Yorkshire: ‘Frustratingly little. Chippendale was born in the town of Otley, in Yorkshire, in 1718, the only son of John Chippendale (1690–1758) and Mary Drake. His father’s family was involved in the timber trade and carpentry, and his mother was the daughter of a local stonemason.


The statue of Thomas Chippendale erected in Otley in Yorkshire, the town where he was born

‘Chippendale’s father, John, moved to Otley, where he worked as a ‘Joyner’. The activities of his relatives give an indication of the atmosphere of craftsmanship in which Thomas Chippendale grew up in Yorkshire. Chippendale may have trained with his father before possibly working as an apprentice for the furniture-maker Richard Wood in York. There is scant information about Chippendale’s personal life, but we know he was married twice and had 12 children.’

When did he move to London, and what was his work life like there?

AS: ‘We don’t know exactly when and why he left Yorkshire, but we do know that by the time he married Catherine Redshaw, in 1748, he seems to have been settled in London. In 1754, Chippendale moved to St Martin’s Lane, where he oversaw a large workshop called The Cabinet and Upholstery Warehouse. There, he and his financing partner James Rannie employed probably as many as 50 craftsmen. A fire in 1755 destroyed 22 craftsmen’s tool chests, suggesting that a larger number of journeymen were employed in other parts of the building — probably at least double that number.’

What was The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, and how significant was it for Chippendale’s career?

RC:The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director  catalogued 160 Chippendale designs that could be built for clients, or that other cabinet-makers could copy. Published in 1754, it undoubtedly launched his career. An intriguing payment made in 1748 from Lord Burlington, one of the early 18th century’s most influential figures, suggests that Burlington might have been one of the ‘Persons of Distinction’ and ‘eminent Taste’ who encouraged Chippendale to publish the Director.’

The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director by Thomas Chippendale — the book of designs that ‘launched’ his career. Photo: Alamy

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Chippendale, Thomas (1718-1779). The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director: Being a large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture, in the Most Fashionable Taste. London: for the Author, 1762. Folio (448 x 272mm). Letterpress title and 200 engraved plates by Müller, Hemerich, Darly, Clowes, Taylor, Rooker, Foster, Morris, and Hulett after designs by Chippendale. This lot was offered in Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years on 5 July 2018 at Christie’s in London and sold for £32,500


The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director by Thomas Chippendale — the book of designs that ‘launched’ his career. Photo: Alamy

AS: ‘While a handful of furniture designs had been printed before, Chippendale’s Director  was the first publication on such a large scale. It included designs for ‘Household Furniture’ — chairs, sofas, beds, commodes, clothes presses, clocks, writing tables, bookcases, pier glasses, picture frames — in the “Gothic”, “Chinese” and “Modern Taste”, the latter referring to what would today be termed the French Rococo style.’

RC: ‘Chippendale was an astute businessman, and the Director  was aimed at promoting his trade. His intention was to sign up 400 subscribers who would receive the 160 plates either bound at £1.14 shillings or loose at £1.10 shillings. A subscriber would have to make a 50 per cent down payment, but would receive a discount on the eventual proposed price. Booksellers were then able to sell them on at marked-up prices.’

By Thomas Chippendale, 1759. A pair of late George II giltwood pier glasses. Sold for £2,000,000. Christie’s private treaty sale in June 2007, prior to a proposed sale on 4 July 2007

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A George II parcel-gilt padouk cabinet-on-stand, attributed to Thomas Chippendale, 1755-1760. 111½ in (283.5 cm) high; 64½ in (163.5 cm) wide; 26¼ in (66.5 cm) deep. Sold for £2,729,250 on 18 June 2008 at Christie’s in London

AS: ‘Initially, 308 people signed up for the Director. Many were tradesmen, but there were also some architects and sculptors, as well as members of the nobility and gentry. The majority of those who subscribed, however, were craftsmen in the furniture trade.’

RC: ‘The book was an immediate success. The Director  was reprinted a year later and further enlarged and edited in 1762, by which time Neoclassicism was fast becoming the fashionable style.’

AS: ‘All of Chippendale’s known documented furniture commissions date from after the publication of the Director, so it was undoubtedly a commercial success. The book played a significant part in his legacy, not only in Britain but in Europe and America.’

What distinguishes a Thomas Chippendale piece from those of his peers? 

AS: ‘Chippendale understood the relationship between design and craftsmanship, with many pieces being highly functional and practical, as well as being beautiful. This year at Harewood we are highlighting some of his most important and iconic furniture, such as the marquetry Diana and Minerva dressing commode of 1773, which cost £86.


The Diana and Minerva Commode (1773) was designed by Thomas Chippendale Senior for the State Bedroom at Harewood House in Yorkshire. The house was Thomas Chippendale’s largest and most extensive commission, and the commode is regarded as one of his greatest works. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

‘It shows the goddesses in marquetry and ivory on the two doors. The marquetry is in various woods on a veneered satinwood ground. To protect the precious but vulnerable top of the commode, Chippendale also provided “A Damask Leather Cover” for £1.’

Who were Chippendale’s leading patrons?

AS: ‘Chippendale’s patrons were the great and the good, who were building new homes, updating their family seats or furnishing their London houses. His versatility as a craftsman and entrepreneur meant that he was commissioned to furnish some of the greatest houses in the country, creating complete room schemes when required. He designed a range of items far beyond furniture, from wallpaper and carpets to brassware and cast iron.

A George III mahogany pedestal desk. Attributed to Thomas Chippendale, circa 1770. Sold for £96,000 in November 2007 at Christie’s London. The pedestal desk is of a pattern associated with the ‘Library Table’ supplied to William Crichton-Dalrymple, 5th Earl of Dumfries (1699-1768), for Dumfries House, Ayrshire, by Thomas Chippendale

‘Perhaps the best-known Scottish commission was that for William Dalrymple, Earl of Dumfries at Dumfries House, who was one of the few patrons to order Rococo show-pieces, exemplifying Chippendale’s early style.

‘Another important Scottish client was Sir Lawrence Dundas. A businessman and landowner, Dundas spent over £1,000 with Chippendale between 1763 and 1766 for his North Yorkshire home and for his London home at 19 Arlington Street.


The State Bed (1773) designed by Thomas Chippendale Senior for the State Bedroom at Harewood House. Costing £400 for the frame, furnishings and mattresses, the bed was the most expensive piece of furniture ever created by the Chippendale firm. The bed was fully restored in 1999 following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

‘Thomas Chippendale is first recorded at Harewood House, the home of Edwin Lascelles, a Yorkshire landowner, in 1767. Lascelles was looking to furnish the new house, designed and built by John Carr of York and Robert Adam. Chippendale masterminded lavish, complex wall treatments with elaborate giltwood mirrors and associated carving.


Harewood House in Yorkshire © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Simon Warner

‘Harewood was Chippendale’s largest commission, and probably exceeded £10,000. To give this some context, the entire cost of nearby Denton Hall (also designed by John Carr) cost a total of £11,000 to build — including the Chippendale furniture, which cost more than £500.

'Chippendale also produced off-the-peg items for a more casual customer, such as his hexagonal tea tables sold at 4 guineas each'

RC:  ‘Amongst the most expensive pieces made for Harewood are the state bed at a cost of £250, with an additional £150 for the hangings and the Diana and Minerva commode at a cost of £86, both of which are still in situ at Harewood. 

‘The hexagonal hall lantern was delivered in 1774 for £123 8s. The bill lists “Carving and various Patterns in wood” and “…afterwards Chasing them in Lead & brass”. It is likely that Chippendale’s workshop created the lantern designs in wood and that the actual casting and chasing was subcontracted out. The completed lantern featured arched panels surmounted by flaming urn finials, draped with berried swags below and terms representing Luna and Aurora, goddesses of the moon and the dawn.

‘The lantern was removed in the early 19th century, when Harewood’s entrance hall was refurbished in the Egyptian taste. In the mid-19th century the lantern was converted into a pair of firescreens, probably by the firm of Trollope & Sons who were then conducting interior renovations at Harewood. The sensitive nature of the reuse and adaption of the lantern shows the high regard for works by Chippendale at Harewood. Panels from one of these firescreens will be offered by Christie’s on 13 December 2019 (see above).’

AS: ‘Not all Chippendale’s patrons were aristocracy or gentry. They also included the celebrated actor and theatre manager David Garrick, who ordered furniture from Chippendale for his villa at Hampton in Surrey. Today, Garrick’s bedroom furniture and four-poster bed can be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Chippendale also produced off-the-peg items for a more casual customer, such as his popular hexagonal tea tables which sold at 4 guineas each.’

RC: ‘Surviving invoices make clear that Chippendale did not limit himself to a house’s grander rooms; he produced modest furniture for all parts of the home. At Nostell Priory, for instance, he supplied Sir Rowland Winn a four-post servant’s bed for the cook’s room at a cost of £1.10 shillings in 1767.’

Why did Robert Adam, the Scottish architect, become such an important figure in Chippendale’s career?

AS: ‘Adam and Chippendale worked together on at least 12 occasions. It would appear that Adam recommended Chippendale to patrons who required furniture and furnishings to complete interior spaces. It is generally felt that while Chippendale was inspired by the architect’s work of the 1760s, he took Adam’s ideas further with a series of his own bold designs in the 1770s.’

RC: ‘Adam became a pioneer of the Neoclassical style, which was becoming fashionable by 1762. If it was Chippendale’s designs from the Director  that made him famous, most Chippendale furniture we know and love today is Neoclassical.

‘In 1763, Sir Lawrence Dundas acquired 19 Arlington Street, off Piccadilly. He commissioned Adam, who remodelled the house and provided a design for a sofa — executed, uniquely, by Chippendale — that featured both rococo and Neoclassical elements.


Designed by Robert Adam and made by Thomas Chippendale, 1765. A pair of George III giltwood armchairs. Sold for £2,169,250 in June 2008 at Christie’s London

‘This suite of seat furniture was the most expensive of Chippendale's career: the sofas cost £54 each, and each chair cost £20. Dispersed from the house in 1934 at an auction conducted by Christie’s, various elements of the suite have since been offered again at Christie’s. In 2008, the pieces broke their own record as the most expensive Chippendale works ever sold.’


Ram's head detail on a gilded console table designed by Thomas Chippendale Senior (circa 1770), originally supplied for the State Dining Room at Harewood House. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

AS: ‘Adam’s influence can also be seen in the sideboard suite for the Dining Room at Harewood. The sideboards themselves are made of tulip wood with marquetry veneer on a rosewood ground. They are accompanied by urn-topped pedestals, with particularly fine ormolu rams’ heads at each corner. This type of dining suite was very much pioneered by Adam, giving a new emphasis to the formal dining room on the state floor of the country house.’

Is it still possible to see pieces and interiors by Thomas Chippendale in the houses they were originally created for?

RC: ‘In addition to the houses referenced by Ann, I would add Nostell Priory, which now belongs to the National Trust. Chippendale provided Sir Rowland Winn with an extensive range of pieces for the grand staterooms, including picture frames and Chinese wallpaper, as well as for the kitchen and servants’ rooms.

‘At Newby Hall, also in Yorkshire and privately owned, the highlight is the Tapestry Room, hung with a set of French Gobelin tapestries signed by Jacques Neilson and furnished with giltwood armchairs by Chippendale — the only set to retain their original Gobelin tapestries. As at Harewood, Newby was subsequently furnished by Thomas Chippendale Junior, who was running the firm by 1776.’


The Yellow Drawing Room at Harewood House © Harewood House Trust

What is the market like for pieces by Thomas Chippendale Senior?

RC: ‘The market for pieces by or firmly attributed to the great man has remained strong. A small chest might make in the low thousands of pounds, while the grandest pieces have been sold for many millions of pounds.

‘Dumfries House and its contents was sold for £45 million in 2007 by the Marquess of Bute — advised by Christie’s — to the Dumfries House Trust after the generous intervention of HRH The Prince of Wales and a number of other benefactors. While the house and land was valuable, the majority of the value was in the contents.

‘In 2008 Christie’s broke the world auction record for Chippendale four times in one sale. All of the pieces of English furniture sold for in excess of £2 million are by Thomas Chippendale — and all bar one was sold through Christie’s.’

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