How does an expert determine if a piece was made by Thomas Chippendale Senior, Britain’s greatest furniture-maker? Christie’s furniture specialists reveal some of the telltale innovations, designs and techniques
‘Chippendale is a name that is synonymous with the greatest works of art created out of timber by a man in England,’ says Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s UK. ‘We really know him now because of his celebrated book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, through which he disbursed his ideas to regional cabinetmakers, to patrons, and also internationally.’
Robert Copley, International Head of Furniture at Christie’s in London, elaborates: ‘I suppose what we love about Chippendale is the incredible, fanciful furniture that he designed: the Chinoiserie cabinets that he’s known for, but also the evolution from the Rococo to the Neoclassical. He was obviously an extremely good draughtsman and designer, and his enduring appeal is not only the great designs, but also their beautiful execution.’
To mark the 300th anniversary of Chippendale’s birth, the breadth of his achievements are being celebrated throughout the United Kingdom, not least at Harewood House. In London, a preview of our sale, Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years, is on display at our King Street saleroom from 30 June to 5 July.
‘Chippendale was incredibly bold in embracing new styles and new techniques, influenced often from France and the Continent,’ says Rock. Below, we offer a guide to some of the hallmarks of construction that put Chippendale’s pieces of furniture in a class of their own.
Chippendale had a superb understanding of timber and its qualities. On relatively plain mahogany pieces, for instance, he would use cross-grain rather than long-grain timber on a simple moulding to add a refinement, where others would not.
The floating panels in a door had sufficient room to shrink over time without splitting, which means that much of his work remains in superb condition to this day.
When crafting mirrors, Chippendale often applied material between the very expensive plates and the backboard, creating a cushion that allowed for some flexibility.
On the mirrors themselves, peripheral ornaments would be dovetailed into the frame, rather than just glued.
Chippendale chairs often feature ‘cramp cuts’ on the inside of the seat rail, which allowed a cramp to be used to tighten the rail and the leg while glueing.
Another area to look for clues is in the arm supports. These always join the seat rail rather than the top of the leg. Where an oval back was used on a chair, one usually finds an exposed upright strut.
There are also some telltale signs in Chippendale's cabinet work. These include the use of short-grain kickers (which prevent a drawer from tipping downward when extended), which wear less than long-grain kickers would. His drawers were made with fine dovetails and lined with mahogany where extra strength was required, with cedar when they were to be used for storing clothes, or with oak on more functional pieces.
If a cheaper soft wood was used on the slides of a press, Chippendale would often disguise its use through the application of marbled paper. Drawer stops will have cut corners at the back, and a red wash was often applied to disguise the use of pine, as well as to prevent worm infestation.
Certain workshop practices seem to have been favoured by Chippendale. For example, he employed a technique whereby the bracket feet of chests or other case furniture were supported by laminated or ‘stacked’ blocks, glued together and then glued behind the brackets. This gave the foot much greater strength and resilience than the more usual technique.
Chippendale’s pedestal desks feature an apparently unique system of locating just two castors centrally beneath each pedestal. This takes into account uneven wood or stone floors that would have been prevalent in the 18th century, so that when the desk is assembled it offers self-levelling stability and ease of movement — more so than if the pedestals were fitted with four (or no) castors.
Chippendale often used a particular lock that featured a distinctive S-pattern keyhole — indeed he invoiced the Countess of Shelburne in 1768 for a commode table fitted with ‘very good spring & tumbler locks & S-bitted Keys’. Furniture at Nostell Priory and from David Garrick’s London villa, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire and Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire all feature these locks, which were supplied by the Gascoigne family of St. James, London.