Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director

The British cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) was born in the small town of Otley, just outside Leeds. His father, John Chippendale (1690–1768), was a joiner by profession and more than likely taught Thomas the fundamentals of the woodworking trade. After completing his training through further apprenticeships, the young Chippendale set his sights on a career in the capital. London—at the time still known as the joint cities of London and Westminster (2017.128a, b)—was the throbbing heart of the nation’s commercial success. The city counted no less than 360 trade groups, which attracted artists, artisans, and laborers from all over the country. In 1707, the writer John Chamberlayne (1666–1723) noted: “. . . in most families of England, if there be any son or daughter that excels the rest in beauty and wit, or perhaps courage, or industry, or any other rare quality; London is their north-star, and they are never at rest till they point directly thither.”

By 1748, at age thirty, Chippendale had arrived in London, where he married his first wife, Catherine Redshaw (died 1772). The city was full of opportunity, but the presence of many competitors made it difficult for the young entrepreneur to gain a footing in the cabinetmaking industry. Little is known about Chippendale’s professional activities during his first years in London. He likely worked predominantly as a contractor for other cabinetmakers and upholders, which allowed him to get to know the market and build a network of contacts that would eventually help him set up his own workshop.

In this period, Chippendale came up with the idea of publishing a book of furniture designs to market his business. The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (52.519.94), published in London in 1754, contained 160 plates covering just about every piece of movable furniture a modern household might need, in a range of different styles, from a simple, undecorated clothing press to a highly adorned library cabinet with rocaille ornaments or Chinese fretwork. With the Director, Chippendale presented himself as a highly versatile and skilled furniture designer and maker who was in tune with the interior habits and needs of a wide cross section of modern society, from the country nobleman to the urban “gentleman” and the newly affluent merchants of the middle classes. No furniture book of this size and scope had been published in the English-speaking world up to that moment.

Publishing British Design

In planning the publication, Chippendale may have taken a cue from Robert Campbell’s London Tradesman. This book, published in 1747, offered advice on career options in modern-day London and described per profession the training required, the day-to-day activities, and what could be expected in terms of income if successful in the chosen occupation. To the aspiring cabinetmaker, the author wrote:

A Youth who designs to make a Figure in this Branch must learn to draw; for upon this depends the Invention of new Fashions, and on that the Success of his Business: He who first hits upon any new Whim is sure to make by the Invention before it becomes common in the Trade; but he that must always wait for a new Fashion till it comes from Paris, or is hit upon by his Neighbour, is never likely to grow rich or eminent in his Way.

Whether Chippendale read Campbell’s advice or had independently reached the conclusion that the key to a successful business lay in the ability to design new things cannot be said for certain. In a more general sense, several parallel developments in the field of British art during the first decades of the eighteenth century created the fertile soil in which Chippendale’s novel idea would come to fruition.

A universal recognition that the quality of British art was inferior to that of leading nations on the Continent, such as France and Italy, had led to the foundation of drawing schools, where students and practitioners of both the fine and the decorative arts could improve their ability to draw and design. At the same time, printmaking was embraced as a medium to celebrate national cultural identity through luxurious anthologies of national artistic and literary heroes such as William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Inigo Jones (1573–1652) (41.100.177). Etching and engraving were also embraced as independent artistic mediums by a growing group of (artist-) printmakers who created original artworks that found an eager constituency of collectors among London society.

Tradesmen turned to the medium of print for promotional purposes. Alongside advertisements in newspapers and magazines, many had trade cards made (47.71.3). The cards consisted of a text detailing the name and specialty of the tradesman, combined with his personal shop sign or other small attributes related to wares and services offered. Over time, the trade cards became more and more elaborate (47.91.12), allowing innumerable engravers in London to specialize in this genre of printmaking.

Encouraged by the adoption of the Engraver’s Copyright Act in 1735, which protected original designs from being copied by other printmakers, the first publications of original British furniture designs were published in the 1740s. Of great importance were the print series by the successful designer and carver Matthias Lock (ca. 1710–ca. 1765) and his colleague Henry Copland (ca. 1706–1753). Their publications were modest, however, consisting of six or twelve designs, often of a single subject matter, such as Lock’s Six Sconces (1744) (52.519.119[a–f]) and Six Tables (1746). While they were instrumental in establishing a British tradition of publishing furniture designs through print (28.88.7[10]), they did little to anticipate a compendium of the range and ambition of the Director.

Creating the Director

The process of creating the Director started behind Chippendale’s drawing table. He made a selection of 160 designs that he then redrafted in neat preparatory sheets (20.40.1[59]). He worked in two stages, first focusing on the core business of the cabinetmaker with designs for chairs, sofas, beds, cabinets, tables, and bureaus. They were designed in a serial manner, with the intention of offering four or six plates of each subject. Slight irregularities in these numbers were introduced during a second stage in the design process, when smaller objects and those requiring detailed carving work such as brackets, clock cases, and frames were added (20.40.2[52]). Most of these drawings have survived and are now divided between The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the Chippendale Society (Leeds, UK), and the Yale Center for British Art. The vast majority are kept in two albums, which were acquired by print curator William M. Ivins for the Metropolitan Museum in 1920.

The preparatory sheets were entrusted to a small team of professional printmakers, consisting of Matthew Darly (ca. 1720–1780), and the German Müller brothers, Johann Sebastian (1715–1790) and Tobias (flourished 1752–78). Their work was well on its way by March 19, 1753, when Chippendale placed a first advertisement announcing the Director in the London Daily Advertiser. This and other announcements were intended to attract 400 subscribers for the book, which would ensure Chippendale a return on his investment. For those interested in a subscription, he offered a sampling of the engraved plates for consultation at his address in Northumberland Court.

The Success of the Director

The Director was officially published in April 1754, with a subscriber’s list that accounted for 334 sold copies at the time of publication. Sales continued strong after this date, and a largely unaltered second edition was issued in 1755. The book owed its eager reception to the formula Chippendale developed to present his designs, which answered the needs of his readership on two different levels.

On the practical side, the book’s encyclopedic nature offered a broad range of furniture designs after the latest fashions, identified on the title page as “Gothic” (20.40.1[22]), “Chinese” (20.40.2[87]), and “Modern” (20.40.1[27]). While the designs could be copied in their entirety, Chippendale encouraged fellow cabinetmakers to let their own imaginations run free and to elaborate on the designs where they saw fit. While he did not include veritable blueprints of the designs, the individual plates often offered an array of information about the decoration, proportions, and functionality of specific designs (20.40.2[37]). More often than not, variants were presented within one plate (20.40.1[46]), showing multiple solutions for the decoration of chair legs and picture frames (20.40.2[52]), or providing both a simple and more luxurious design for the same piece of furniture (20.40.2[80]). Additional, enlarged details were often included as well to convey information about the execution of unseen or very small elements (20.40.2[37]; 20.40.2[80]; 20.40.1[46]).

The furniture designs in Chippendale’s Director are preceded by an educational section, which includes an introduction to the proportions of the five architectural orders (20.40.1[4]). By including these plates, Chippendale addressed modern concerns about creating a harmonious unity between the architectural design of a building and its interior. This preoccupation with architectural proportion can be noted throughout Chippendale’s individual furniture designs as well. He expressed his concern for balanced proportions particularly in his specification drawings and diagrams, which detail silhouettes, measurements, and the curvature of domes (20.40.1[38]).

The Director satisfied the ideals of Chippendale’s prospective clients, his colleagues, and the British nation on a higher, more ideological plane as well. The elaborate folio-sized publication was the first anthology-type book dedicated to British furniture design, and could grace the shelves of the gentleman’s library alongside publications from the Continent. Moreover, by opting to include citations from Homer and Ovid on the title page, and by exhibiting his command of architectural principles, Chippendale elevated himself—and by association his peers in the merchant classes—to the level of learned gentleman as well. To own a copy of Chippendale’s Director thus became a statement about one’s ambition in life.

The drive to stay current with contemporary taste and the works of several competitors, such as father and son Linnell (1730–96) and the new firm Ince and Mayhew (1758/59–1811), persuaded Chippendale to launch a third, altered and expanded edition of the Director. Starting in 1759—the year in which Ince and Mayhew announced their own book of furniture designs—he began to draw new designs, some of which were published in smaller series first, before the complete third edition saw light in 1762. Since the first edition of the Director had sufficiently proven that Chippendale was capable of sound designs, most of the new drawings were less focused on the technical aspects of execution and were primarily intended to emphasize his skill and ingenuity as a designer of furniture (20.40.1[47]; (20.40.2[64]).

Shortly after the release of the third edition in 1762, a French-language edition was published as well, revealing Chippendale’s ambition to gain a foothold on the Continent with his designs. While it found its way into the French Royal Library and the collection of Russian empress Catherine the Great, the popularity of Chippendale furniture remained most pervasive in the English-speaking world. In print, Chippendale’s designs spread throughout the British empire, following the routes of the expanding maritime trade and colonization in North America and the Caribbean. Through the widespread adoption of the designs and aesthetic found in the three editions of the Director, Chippendale quickly became a hallmark for quality British and American furniture, and eventually synonymous with the furniture style of the period at large.