Simon Phillips, chairman of Ronald Phillips Ltd and co-founder of Masterpiece London, on his Thomas Chippendale sofa
‘This sofa is one of a pair made for Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire — one of the great Thomas Chippendale commissions. It came up at an auction that took place on 5 July, which happens to be my birthday. I went to the River Café in London for dinner, leaving instructions with someone to bid for me under the hammer.
‘After dinner I found out that my instructions had not been followed. I wasn’t happy. But the sofas hadn’t sold, and so I got in touch with Christie’s. I wasn’t trying to be clever and buy at the bottom estimate — it was just that a mistake had been made. But someone else was interested by then, so in effect a second auction took place with one lot and two bidders. This happens from time to time...
‘People call Chippendale “the Shakespeare of English furniture”, and there can be no ifs or buts: he is the best. The toe on this sofa is typical — you see it on chairs and side tables — but with Chippendale there is always variation. He built movement into the design, a different collar on a leg, or a ring on the block at the top. You never see identical sets of chairs in two country houses.
‘It’s fine to change the upholstery, because whatever you do is wrong’
‘This sofa bears a distinctive mark: the little cutouts on the frame underneath. These notches, shaped like a knife point, served as a foothold for the clamps that would have held the frame tight while it was being glued together. When you see those “cramp cuts”, so neat and so sharp, you know you are looking at Chippendale.
‘I’ve had the sofa reguilded and reupholstered. Originally it would have been covered in red damask. It’s fine to change the upholstery, because whatever you do is wrong. I think this green looks rather rich, and goes well with the gilt.
‘Some of the furniture that Chippendale made is plain and desperately practical. This is a bit more formal, designed with its looks in mind. It still works as a functional, comfortable piece of furniture — but you might want to sit down on it slowly, with respect, because it is also a work of art.’