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New Drawings on View in Chippendale's Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker

Femke Speelberg
October 15, 2018
View of a museum gallery featuring British and American furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries

View of the exhibition Chippendale's Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker in gallery 752

The exhibition Chippendale's Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker, on view in galleries 751 and 752 through January 27, 2019, focuses on the transformative role of drawings as a promotional tool during the early years of Thomas Chippendale's career in London.

Born in 1718 in the small town of Otley, England, Chippendale attended the local grammar school and learned the beginnings of woodworking from his father, who was a joiner by trade. Little is known about Chippendale's subsequent career path until 1748, when at age twenty-nine he married his first wife, Catherine Redshaw, at St. George's Chapel in Mayfair, London. During the eighteenth century, the fast-growing capital attracted many ambitious young men and women, and Chippendale undoubtedly moved there to capitalize on the growing wealth of the Empire, and to set up a successful business of his own.

Engraving of a view of Westminster and London in the early 18th century

Johannes Kip (Dutch, 1653–1722). A Prospect of Westminster and a Prospect of the City of London, 1720. Published by Joseph Smith (British, active London, ca. 1697–1732). Two collated engravings, printed from two plates, 20 1/4 x 92 1/4 in. (51.4 x 234.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Barbara and Howard Fox Gift, 2017 (2017.128a, b)

Few sources have been preserved that reveal the exact steps Chippendale took to get to know the London furniture market, but he likely began by working as a journeyman for other cabinetmakers before going into business independently, in the early 1750s. During this period, he also conceived of a brilliant form of advertisement: He employed his drawing skills to compile a book of 160 designs that would set the tone for who he was as a cabinetmaker, and what clients could expect from the Chippendale brand. Under the eloquent title The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, he presented designs for every piece of movable furniture needed in a modern household, in a variety of fashionable styles ranging from English Rococo to Chinese and Gothic.

Design drawings by Thomas Chippendale of a state bed (left) and china case (right)

Thomas Chippendale (British, 1718–1779). Left: A Design for a State Bed, in Chippendale Drawings, Vol. I, 1761. Pen with black, gray and purple ink, purple and gray washes, sheet: 15 1/8 x 9 5/8 in. (38.4 x 24.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.40.1[31]). Right: China Case, in Chippendale Drawings, Vol. II, 1753. Black ink, gray wash, sheet: 12 1/2 x 8 3/8 in. (31.8 x 21.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund 1920 (20.40.2[87])

The book was unprecedented in the English-speaking world. British wood carvers and cabinetmakers had only recently embraced the medium of printmaking as a means to promote their skill as designers of furniture to a wider audience. They often had trade cards made that included images of the kind of products they offered in their workshops, and from the 1740s onwards, a handful of talented designers such as the carver Matthias Lock (ca. 1710–ca. 1765) produced small series—consisting of six or twelve prints—devoted to specific types of furniture such as tables or sconces.

Promotional cards for 18th-century furniture makers Samuel Spencer (left) and Matthias Lock (right)

Left: Samuel Spencer (British, late 17th–early 18th century). Trade Card of Samuel Spencer, Cain Chairs, at the Golden Chair in Aldermanbury, ca. 1700–20. Engraving, sheet: 9 1/16 x 6 3/4 in. (23 x 17.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Bella C. Landauer, 1925 (47.71.3). Right: Designed and etched by Matthias Lock (British, ca. 1710–ca. 1765). Six Sconces (title page), 1744. Etching, 13 1/16 x 9 5/16 x 3/16 in. (33.2 x 23.6 x 0.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1952 (52.519.119[a])

Unlike Lock, Chippendale did not etch or engrave himself, but instead entrusted his drawings to a team of professional engravers who meticulously translated his pen-and-ink drawings into engravings. What is quite remarkable is the fact that most of the drawings survived this transfer process, and were seemingly kept together in Chippendale's workshop long after they had served their initial purpose.

Chippendale's attachment to them may be partially explained by the overwhelming success the Director would prove to be. The book was published in the spring of 1754, and by 1755 an unchanged second edition was issued, which indicates that the initial print run of four hundred copies had sold out completely. Between 1759 and 1762, Chippendale worked on new designs, which he published in a third, altered, and expanded edition in 1762. This was quickly followed by a version with a French translation of his text, indicating his ambition to become a household name beyond the confines of the English-speaking world in countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Designs for ribband back chairs by Thomas Chippendale (top) and Matthew Darly (bottom)

Top: Thomas Chippendale (British, 1718–1779). Ribband Back Chairs, 1754. Pen and black ink, brush and gray wash, sheet: 7 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. (19.1 x 33.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1972 (1972.581). Bottom: Matthew Darly (British, ca. 1720–80 London), after Thomas Chippendale (British, 1718–1779). Ribband Back Chairs, 1754. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Watson Library Collection (161.1 C44 Q)

In the early nineteenth century, probably after Thomas Chippendale the Younger (1749–1822) was forced to close down the family workshop in 1804, Chippendale's drawings for the first and third edition of the Director were pasted into two albums and eventually entered the collection of Thomas Henry, the fourth Baron Foley. In 1919 they were sold at auction as part of the library of Gerald Henry, seventh Baron Foley, and subsequently acquired by the American book dealer George D. Smith, who brought them to New York. Smith died of a heart attack soon after, and when his stock was sold in 1920, the two albums containing more than two hundred drawings were purchased by print curator William M. Ivins Jr. for the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they have been kept safe ever since.

At top, photo of two bound albums of Thomas Chippendale drawings; at bottom, design drawing for a sofa by Thomas Chippendale

Top: The Met's two Chippendale albums (20.40.1; 20.40.2). Bottom: Sofa, in Chippendale Drawings, Vol. I, 1760. Brown and black ink, gray wash, sheet: 8 3/4 x 13 11/16 in. (22.2 x 34.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.40.1[9])

For our current exhibition, organized to celebrate Thomas Chippendale's three hundredth birthday, several drawings have been lifted out of the albums for the first time in more than two hundred years. Since the show's opening in May, eighteen original pen-and-ink drawings have been on view alongside prints, books, paintings, and a selection of furniture inspired by Chippendale's examples in the Director. They are divided in three groups to illustrate the variety and ingenuity of Chippendale's designs, the artistry of his hand as a draftsman, and the architectural and mechanical knowledge he incorporated in many of his sheets.

Installation view of a wall of Chippendale drawings on view in a Met exhibition

Installation view of a selection of Chippendale's drawings included in the exhibition's second rotation

Because the drawings are sensitive to excessive light exposure, this first group of drawings were replaced by a second selection of eighteen drawings on October 9, which will remain on view through the rest of the exhibition. These rotations offer visitors a rare opportunity to discover, and compare and contrast, additional drawings by Chippendale from The Met collection. The second rotation includes the drawing for Chippendale's famous "ribbon back chairs," various designs for cabinets and chests, and even two designs for church organs. After the show closes on January 27, the Museum's Paper Conservation team will remount the drawings in the two albums, at which point they can be viewed by appointment only in the Study Room for Drawings and Prints.

Related Content

Chippendale's Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 27, 2019.

Take a walkthrough of the exhibition galleries and view a selection of objects featured in the exhibition.

Explore the life of Thomas Chippendale and his creation of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director in a Timeline of Art History essay by Associate Curator Femke Speelberg.

Published in concert with the exhibition, a Bulletin on Chippendale's Director by Morrison H. Heckscher, curator emeritus of the American Wing, is available for purchase at The Met Store.

Femke Speelberg

Associate Curator Femke Speelberg joined the Department of Drawings and Prints in 2011 and is responsible for ornament and architectural drawings, prints, and modelbooks. Her work focuses on the history of design and the transmission of ideas. Femke's research is inherently interdisciplinary, connecting works on paper with artworks, objects, and architecture from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. She often collaborates with other Museum departments on installations and publications. She has curated the exhibitions Living in Style: Five Centuries of Interior Design from the Collection of Drawings and Prints (2013) and Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620 (2015).