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Newsletter - February 2013


Memorial to Thomas Chippendale in Otley

Memorial to
Thomas Chippendale in Otley

The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale

“Yannush Car-chef-ski-swovi-kov-ski” – we were told by Janus’ introductory slide –­ was the way to pronounce his name! Janus proved to be a knowledgeable guide to Thomas Chippendale, even after admitting that no one knew the exact date of his birth, or his death, and nothing about his appearance or character! (Although the sculptor who portrayed him on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum with a beard and sandals made him resemble Jesus.)

We learned that he was baptised in Otley, Yorkshire, on June 1718, the son of a joiner, and that he moved to London – no one knows quite when. However, his marriage is registered in 1748 in Mayfair and he and his wife had five boys and four girls. After his wife Catherine died he remarried and had three more children. He died in 1779 aged 62, again we don’t know the date, but he was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the 13th November. The burial ground is now the site of the National Gallery, maybe a fitting memorial.

Chippendale set up his cabinet making business in St Martin’s Lane, which was the centre of furniture makers, and was by no means the largest business in the area, employing 40 cabinet makers; some other firms employed as many as 400. No piece can be authenticated as ‘by the hand of’’ Thomas Chippendale, only as the product of his workshop. The business generally was very competitive with a high standard of cabinet making at the time.

Typical 18th century cabinet maker

The new timber of the 18th century was mahogany which was imported from Jamaica; this is a superb and strong timber because of its grain structure, and carves well, giving crisp, sharp outlines. At the time it was not the most expensive and Thomas Chippendale used it extensively. The strength of the timber was such that a narrow frame could contain a large expanse of heavy glass. Chippendale understood the properties of his materials and his designs followed from this knowledge.

Typical 18th century cabinet maker

The reason for his fame rests on the publication of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director in 1754; the money raised for this work was from the subscription of 300 individuals: cabinet makers, architects, interior designers. It was very unusual for a tradesman to publish such a book but this went through several editions. Its success rested on the fact that it included “the modern taste” – ­which was rococo. This “modern” style was very ornamental and included scroll shapes and a lot of carving, exploiting the characteristics of the wood.

Two bookcases from The Director      

Chippendale was primarily a designer; he had been to France and was familiar with French style or Versailles style as it was known. This furniture was gilded; Chippendale preferred the polished wood. His style was an English interpretation of rococo and can be considered the epitome of Georgian elegance. There are few straight lines, but flowing naturalistic shapes and sometimes radically asymmetric shapes.

Some pieces were inspired by the French ‘commode’ table (commode meaning convenience) which was had drawers set into the framework of a table, and was very fashionable. The French decorated theirs with ormolu metalwork and the ornament was more important than the piece; with Chippendale form is the style; and the grain of wood is in harmony with the shape.

Chippendale was flexible enough to work in many styles, and one other fashionable style was the Gothic which had fretwork applied onto the surface. Sometimes the gothic ogee arches have rococo motifs, one style combining with another.

The Chinese style, also advertised in his Director, produced chairs with fretwork backs, made of 3-ply cross-grained mahogany which was very strong and Chinoiserie became very popular, and deigns exaggerated.

Chinese chairs from The Director

By the 1770s tastes were changing and exotic timbers were being used. The neo-classical style of Robert Adam was in vogue. Chippendale was influenced to move away from rococo to straight legs, chairs with lyre backs, following the Adam style, and with the use of marquetry and coloured veneers.

Janus suggested that what Shakespeare was to drama, Chippendale was to furniture – and there were a number of interesting questions and answers to round off the evening.

Forthcoming visits

The following are being planned and details will be sent out beforehand to all members and will appear on your programme card.

Monday, 13th May 2013
Belvoir Castle, Grantham

Thursday, 20th June 2012
‘A Crisis of Brilliance’, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Tuesday, 9th July 2013
Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall
Self drive visit  

Wednesday, 24th July 2013
Summer Garden Party, West Lodge, Aylsham

Wednesday, 11th September 2013
Tate Britain, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

16th–22nd October 2013
St Petersburg

Tuesday 22nd October 2013
Special Interest Day – The China Trade
Eric Knowles          

Renewals of membership

The advance programme has been distributed to all members and we hope that this appetizer of forthcoming lectures will persuade you to renew. Please send in your renewal forms to our membership secretary Tina Feilden as soon as possible, and by the end of March latest, so that we can give out the programme cards at the April meeting.

In the past some members have still been sending in their cheques in the summer, which causes a lot of extra work! Please help us by paying promptly. Also you will lose out on information of visits which is only sent to paid-up members.

National membership

There seems to be some confusion about National membership cards as, shortly after receiving these, members have been asked to renew their membership! The national cards from NADFAS head office are useful for showing at various galleries for a discounted entry fee; their issue does not coincide with our Society year.

Our Norwich DFAS year runs from May to April and subscriptions cover all the lectures in your membership and programme card which you will receive in April. Norwich DFAS pays part of your subscription to NADFAS to cover affiliation to the national association and the cost of your magazine.