Thomas Chippendale

World-famous cabinet-maker, Thomas Chippendale, is responsible for making the fourth most expensive piece of furniture in history – a carved commode that sold for a cool £3.7 million at auction.

While a commode is not a glamorous item, when it’s an authentic Chippendale, it becomes a valuable collector’s piece. The Harrington commode in question would have served an 18th-century family as a useful item of furniture, as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

The historic portable toilet went under the hammer at world-renowned auction house, Sotheby’s, in 2010 and was bought for more than £3 million – the same price as an ultra-rare 720hp Pagani Huayra BC supercar and more expensive than a 9.5-acre South Pacific private island!

So what makes Chippendale furniture so incredibly valuable? Read on to find out more about arguably the most famous furniture maker in history…

Who was Thomas Chippendale?

Born in 1718, in the market town Otley, Thomas Chippendale grew up to become the most famous furniture-maker Britain has ever produced. His exact date of birth is unknown, although he was baptised on 5th June. He was born into a family of carpenters, as his father, John, was a joiner.

Chippendale was the only son of John and his wife Mary (née Drake). Educated at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, he learned woodworking skills from his father, although historians believe he was further trained by joiner and cabinet-maker Richard Wood of York, before moving to London as a young man.

Little is known of his early career, although it is thought the move to London was aimed at furthering his ambition to become a successful cabinet-maker. In 1754, he entered into a business partnership with wealthy Scottish merchant, James Rannie.

Their business operated from 60–62 St Martin’s Lane, with Rannie providing funding and Chippendale carrying out the skilled carpentry work. Bookkeeper, Thomas Haig, dealt with the financial side of the business.

In his private life, Chippendale married Catherine Redshaw on 19th May 1748 at St George’s Chapel, Mayfair. They rented a house at Conduit Court, Covent Garden, and went on to have five sons and four daughters.

Furniture catalogue

Cabinet-making was a revered and much sought-after trade in the 18th century and Chippendale, recognising the importance of the industry, published an illustrated book of influential designs in 1754. It was called The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.

It proved hugely successful, influencing the English upper classes’ tastes in furniture for many years. The original book, published using 160 copper plates, is held by the British Library.

This was the first widely-published furniture trade directory and as a result of its success, Chippendale produced several more directories, the final one in 1762. Although other furniture makers’ work was featured, it was Chippendale’s own designs that were the most highly-prized.

His customers included the aristocratic and wealthy residents of London’s west end. Although he is known for his furniture designs today, he also worked as an interior designer in the 18th century, advising the owners of town mansions and country houses on their furniture, fixtures and fittings.

His designs also became influential throughout Europe and in America, largely thanks to his “Director” catalogues. Not all of the furniture designed by Chippendale followed designs published in the Director. He also created simpler pieces for bedrooms and private spaces, while clients could combine with Director elements to create bespoke items.

Chippendale’s style

Chippendale’s designs are recognised as falling into three categories: Gothic, Rococo and Chinese. He seamlessly blended the three distinct styles into unified and harmonious furniture designs. Today, the term Chippendale commonly refers to English furniture in a modified Rococo style.

Gothic styling was visible in the pointed arches and S-shaped curves carved into chair backs and into the wooden glazing bars of massive, ornate bookcases. Rococo styling was found in his French-style chairs, based on Louis XV designs.

The most famous Chippendale Rococo design is the broad-seated ribbon-back chair, with a carved centre support in the back and a back rail in the form of a Cupid’s bow. More elaborate Rococo designs were found in his carved and gilded mirror frames and small tables.

Chinese styling was found in his china cabinets and china shelves, including glazing bars in a fretwork design and a distinct pagoda style at the top, called a pediment. A similar design was often found around the edges of tea tables.

Chippendale died of tuberculosis in 1779, at the age of 61. He was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 16th November.

A statue of the furniture maker and a memorial plaque have been erected outside the old grammar school in Manor Square, in Otley. There is also a full-size sculpted figure of Chippendale on the façade of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Valuable furniture

Anyone lucky enough to own a piece of Chippendale furniture today can be confident they have made a sound investment, as its value increases with each passing year.

A rare mass sale of Chippendale furniture at top auction house Christie’s in July 1992 saw one of the biggest collections of his designs going under the hammer, comprising pieces from three different houses. The prices they achieved were astounding.

A collection of gold and silver mirrors with rich carvings from Harewood House, West Yorkshire, described as exceedingly neat, fetched £319,000. They came complete with the original bill from 1775, when they had cost the householder £40 – the equivalent of £5,000 today, taking inflation into account.

Two mahogany chairs with reeded legs and carved, lyre-shaped backs, made for Lord Melbourne’s library at Brocket Hall, Welwyn, made £57,750. They were part of an original set of four chairs.

Meanwhile, a pair of commodes, designed with a marquetry inlay, didn’t sell during the auction. However, a buyer who turned up after the auction was believed to have paid between £200,000 to £300,000 for them. Their original price in 1774, when they were made for William Constable, of Mansfield Street, London, had been £58 – around £7,000 in today’s terms.

Chippendale is described as having been a “business genius” with a great knowledge of carpentry. Setting high standards, his furniture was tremendously strong and of striking design. Sadly, nobody thought of writing the biography of a cabinet-maker in those days, so we have only a sketchy picture of the man behind the furniture.

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