Britain’s greatest cabinet maker was quite the entrepreneur, says Chris Carter.
“Thomas Chippendale is without question Britain’s greatest cabinet-maker,” says Robert Copley, Christie’s international director of furniture in the auction house’s online magazine. From “whimsical rococo and the fashion for all things Chinese early on in his career” to the neoclassical, “Chippendale excelled in every style he worked in”. This year, to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, Christie’s is holding its Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years sale on 5 July in London.
We don’t know exactly in which month Chippendale was born – in fact, we know “frustratingly little” about his early life, says Ann Sumner, historic collections advisor at Yorkshire’s Harewood House Trust. We do know that he was born in 1718 in Otley, Yorkshire, to a family of craftsmen, and that he was living in London by the mid-18th century. It was while he was running a large workshop on St Martin’s Lane in 1754 that he published the forerunner of the modern sales catalogue: The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. The 160 designs it contained could be made up for subscribers of the £1.14 shillings catalogue (£1.10 shillings for the unbound plates) or copied by other furniture makers.
It “was a wildly successful feat of self-promotion”, says Harriet Baker in the Financial Times. It enabled Chippendale to expand his workshop and take on larger commissions. At the same time, “furniture-making was moving from the rigid guild structure to a free market approach”, Simon McCormack, National Trust project curator at Nostell Priory, tells The Daily Telegraph. So, Chippendale could “break out of his own background of doing one thing, and bring in people who would make a wide range of things under his brand”. In short, Chippendale was morphing from furniture-maker to interior designer. A 1762 copy of the Director catalogue is expected to fetch between £5,000 and £8,000 at Christie’s.
The highest-priced piece in the same sale is a George III mahogany and Indian ebony commode made for a Sir Rowland Winn in around 1767, with an estimated pre-sale value of £3m to £5m, notes Fang Block in Barron’s Penta. The “lavish” object, which boasts alphabetised pigeon-holes in the neoclassical style, was last sold by Christie’s in 1991. That wasn’t Christie’s first encounter with the commode, however.
Following Winn’s death in 1785, the original James Christie (a friend of Chippendale) was tasked with auctioning off Wynn’s furniture. At the last minute, the family decided they couldn’t part with it and the commode was moved to the family estate at Nostell Priory in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Nostell Priory is now owned by the National Trust, and its large collection of Chippendale furniture and interiors is the subject of an exhibition on Chippendale’s life, which runs until 4 November. For details of other tricentenary events, see Chippendale300.co.uk.
What makes a Chippendale?
With Chippendale furniture so highly valued, it pays to be on your guard against fakes. Below are some hallmarks of a genuine Chippendale, according to Christie’s furniture experts, Robert Copley and Peter Horwood. Chippendale’s feel for wood and its properties was superb. As such, floating panels in a door had enough room to shrink over time without splitting, and much of his work remains in superb condition to this day. In making mirrors, Chippendale often added a cushion between the expensive plates and the backboard, which allowed for some flexibility. Meanwhile, peripheral ornaments would be dovetailed into the frame, rather than just glued.
Screw-holes to enable the safe transportation of chairs destined for outside London were carefully hidden, while arm supports always join the seat rail rather than the top of the leg. There is usually an exposed upright strut on oval-backed chairs. Short-grain “kickers” (rather than long-grain) stopped cabinet drawers from tipping downward when pulled out, and wore out less. Chippendale also favoured a distinctive S-shaped keyhole. Bracket feet on furniture were supported by “stacked” blocks – (materials glued together) and then glued behind the brackets for strength.
A pair of Imperial gilt-bronze-mounted vases made from malachite (a green mineral from the Ural mountains in Russia) is expected to fetch between £600,000 and £800,000 at Sotheby’s Treasures sale in London on 5 July. The amphora-shaped vases, made in 1844 and 1847 to a design by Ivan Galberg, were presented as gifts by Russian emperor Nicholas I to his second daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, as part of her dowry. She married Crown Prince Charles of Württemberg on 13 July 1846. Malachite was used by the Russians in the 19th century to impress foreigners, notes Sotheby’s. A large urn from the same Imperial Lapidary Works in Peterhof and Ekaterinburg was given to Queen Victoria in 1839.
A Chinese Imperial 18th-century Qianlong vase (pictured above), found in a French attic and taken to Sotheby’s in Paris in a shoebox by its unassuming owners, fetched €16,182,800 last week – 23 times its €700,000 upper estimate. The sale set a new record for Chinese porcelain sold in France. The Yangcai Famille-Rose vase features a landscape with deer, cranes and pine trees, all symbols of health and longevity. “The importance of certain pieces is occasionally lost over time,” said Sotheby’s Henry Howard-Sneyd. “Given the huge appetite for Chinese art among today’s collectors, now is the moment to scour your homes and attics, and come to us with anything you might find!”