Special Collections & Archives Blog

The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1754), by Thomas Chippendale

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 5:30 pm

chippendale plate xvi ribband back chairs detail

By the end of the 18th century, Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was the most famous furniture designer in England and North America. The term “Chippendale” had come to refer to a style of furniture prevalent throughout Europe and the United States. What started Thomas Chippendale on the road to this renown was the publication of a book.

In 1754 Chippendale was an up-and-coming young furniture designer, recently moved to London. Raised in a family of woodworkers, he presumably received extensive hands-on training in his early life, which no doubt served him well once he began to design his own furniture based on the popular styles of his day. But fashionable London was a competitive market, and Chippendale needed a way to distinguish himself from the crowd.

He hit upon the idea of publishing what was essentially a deluxe catalog of his designs. It was titled The Gentleman and Cabinetmakers Director. A few English furniture makers had published their designs before, but nothing had come close to the scale of Chippendale’s large folio volume.

chippendale title page

Title page from the 1754 first edition of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.

The book was, its subtitle announced, “A Large Collection of the most Elegant and Useful Designs of Houshold [sic.] furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern [i.e., English Rococo] Taste.”

The Rococo style, a French import, was the prevailing fashion in the mid-18th century. It was characterized by elaborate carving and sinuous forms, often featuring decorative elements taken from the natural world—leaves, shells, animals.

chippendale chairs plate xii

“A variety of new-pattern Chairs, which, if executed according to their Designs, and by a skillful workman, will have a very good effect. The fore feet are all different for your better choice. If you think they are too much ornamented, that can be omitted at pleasure.”

The Gothic style of furniture was part of the medieval revival in art and architecture, which began in the 18th century and became even more prevalent in the Victorian era. Gothic furniture tended to feature elements found in medieval architecture, such as arches and openwork patterns.

chippendale chairs plate xxi gothic

“[N]ew designs of Gothic Chairs; their feet are almost all different, and may be of use to those that are unacquainted with this sort of work. Most of the ornaments may be left out if required. The sizes … may be lessened or enlarged, according to the fancy of the skillful artist.

And finally the Chinese style of furniture was part of the 18th century’s fascination with Chinoiserie—decorative objects imported from Asia. The European version of Asian decoration stressed its exotic and fanciful elements, such as dragons, birds, and elaborate pagodas.

chippendale chairs plate xxv chinese

“Chairs in the present Chinese manner, which I hope will improve that taste, or manner of work; it having yet never arrived to any perfection…”

Chippendale self-published the Director, financing his venture by recruiting subscribers—buyers who pre-paid for their copies of the finished book. This was a fairly common practice in the 18th century.

The list of over 300 subscribers in the 1754 first edition of the Director includes both categories of reader mentioned in the book’s title: Gentlemen—members of the aristocracy who would purchase Chippendale’s furniture; and Cabinetmakers—Chippendale’s fellow craftsmen who could adapt his designs for their own use.

chippendale subscribers

Subscribers to the first edition of Chippendale’s Director.

Chippendale’s friend Matthew Darly engraved most of the illustrations, based on Chippendale’s own drawings. The 160 plates show the wide variety of furniture and decorative objects that his workshop could produce. Chippendale also included at the beginning of the book a brief discussion of five orders of architecture and instructions on drawing furniture in perspective.

chippendale chairs in perspective text

Chippendale’s instructions for drawing chairs in perspective. He included similar instructions for other types of furniture.

chippendale chairs in perspective plate

Chippendale’s diagram for drawing chairs in perspective.

The more elaborate pieces featured in the Director obviously required a very high level of woodworking skill to execute.

chippendale plate xxxi doom bed

Chippendale’s alarmingly named “Doom [i.e. Dome] Bed” illustrates the elaborate lengths to which “Chinese” style could go in the 18th century. It is also a reminder that English orthography was still somewhat in flux in 1754.

Even before the book was published, Chippendale apparently encountered some skeptics who suggested that the finished furniture could not live up to his drawings. Never lacking in self-confidence, Chippendale addressed his detractors in the Preface to the first edition:

Upon the whole, I have here given no design but what may be executed with advantage by the hands of a skillful workman, tho’ some of the profession have been diligent enough to represent them (especially those after the Gothic and Chinese manner) as so many specious drawings, impossible to be work’d off by any mechanic whatsoever. I will not scruple to attribute this to malice, ignorance and inability: And I am confident I can convince all Noblemen, Gentlemen, or others, who will honour me with their commands, that every design in the book can be improved, both as to beauty and enrichment, in the execution of it…

In fact, many of the designs include instructions for the less experienced cabinetmaker and options for making pieces more or less elaborate, as the craftsman’s skill level and purchaser’s income demanded.

chippendale plate xlix writing table

“A Writing Table, the front feet to draw out, with a double rising top, as in in profile D; ee is the Table top, h is a horse that turns up; G is part of the front rail morticed into the foot, which draws out with the front, and parts at C; G is the end rail morticed into the foot, as you see by the prick’d line; a is the end of the drawer, with its grooves for the slider and bottom as at A in the plan; F is the turn’d column glued into the corner of the foot.”

Chippendale’s catalog offered designs for many other household items besides furniture. Candle holders, clock cases, fire screens, shelves, mirror frames, and many other elaborately carved items were available from his workshop.

chippendale plate cxxxi brackets for busts detail

One of Chippendale’s bracket shelves for decorative busts.

Chippendale’s Director was not an inexpensive book. It sold for £1.17s in unbound sheets, slightly more for a pre-bound copy. But it apparently sold well enough to warrant a second edition less than a year after its appearance. And in 1762 Chippendale published an updated third edition.

chippendale binding

Chippendale’s Director is a very large folio volume. ZSR’s copy has been rebound in early 20th century brown morocco with gold tooling.

As a marketing tool, the Director was a great success. Chippendale’s business took off, and he was soon overseeing a large workshop of skilled craftsmen. With the publication and wide distribution of his book, Chippendale also –unintentionally—insured his legacy as the 18th century’s best known designer of furniture. Copies of the Director circulated across Europe and North America. Chippendale’s influence was particularly strong in the English colonies, later the United States, as woodworkers adapted his designs to American materials and tastes.

chippendale plate xxxviii sideboard table

“Plate xxxviii has two different feet, which are both cut through, as likewise the rail; the dimensions are also to the design.”

Many copies of the Director made their way to North America, and many examples of Chippendale-inspired furniture from 18th century America have survived. The collection of Winston-Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts includes a sideboard based on Chippendale’s design pictured above. By publishing his designs in text and illustrations, Chippendale spread his influence far beyond the reaches of his London workshop.

Interested in learning more about American furniture design? Be sure to visit Reynolda House Museum of American Art’s special exhibit The Art of Seating: Two Hundred Years of American Design.


Categories
ABCs of Special Collections
Collection News
Digital Projects
Exhibits
General
News & Events
Preservation
Rare Book of the Month
University Archives
What Are You Working On?
Tags
a day in the life of a librarian American Indians American Revolution archives Arthur Conan Doyle Baptist book repair workshops botany Charles Dickens Christmas detective fiction Documentary Film Edgar Allan Poe Elizabeth Blackwell Engraving gift books Harold Hayes herbal home movie day illustrations Ireland James Joyce John Charles McNeill John White Laurence Stallings Mary Shelley Maya Angelou medieval manuscripts poetry preservation mold programs Rare Book of the Month Rare Books Roanoke Shakespeare Sherlock Holmes Special Collections Strand Magazine Theodor deBry Thomas Hariot Travel Narratives Venice W.J. Cash wake forest Writers' Lives
Archives
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
December 2009
November 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
October 2008
September 2008
July 2008
April 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
Subscribe
Entries
Comments

Powered by WordPress.org, protected by Akismet. Blog with WordPress.com.