Thomas Chippendale exhibition
A selection of some of the stunning furniture on display at Leeds City Museum
4 mins read

Exhibition celebrates stunning craftsmanship of Thomas Chippendale

Thomas Chippendale, 1718-1779: a celebration of British craftsmanship and design launches a nationwide programme to mark the tercentenary in 2018 of the birth of Thomas Chippendale senior, celebrating his life as furniture maker, designer and entrepreneur.

The exhibition will show key pieces from the Royal Collection, Paxton House, Newby Hall, and Dumfries House displayed in a comprehensive, thematic way. The exhibition will explore Chippendale’s rise to prominence, reflecting on the quality of his work, his workshop and techniques, his relationship with his clients and their commissions, and the legacy of the Chippendale brand up to the present day.

Showing objects from his early life, alongside a first edition of The Director and beautiful hand-drawn designs, it features some of the best examples of his work, out of a country house context and many on public display for the first time.

Born in Otley in 1718, he made his name in London with his exquisite designs and entrepreneurial spirit. His beautiful designs and the superiority of his workmanship made Chippendale one of the most sought after furniture makers of the 1700s, working in some of the greatest and most fashionable houses in the country.

Much of Chippendale’s renown is thanks to his strong sense entrepreneurial spirit and forward-thinking approach to business. In the early 1750s he decided to produce a catalogue of furniture designs in the style of the great architectural books of the period. Chippendale was the first furniture maker to ever produce such an ambitious book of designs.

The first edition of The Gentleman’s and Cabinet Maker’s Director was published in 1754 and of the 308 subscribers – 49 of these were gentry or nobility who may have been looking to commission Chippendale for future work. Fellow craftsmen who would have used it to inform their own work largely bought the remaining copies. The Director was so successful that it was reprinted in two further additions, and the third edition included major updates to the styles of furniture available as fashions and tastes changed.

All of Chippendale’s known commissions (with the exception of one) date from after the appearance of The Director – clearly it had its intended effect on stimulating his career. He was commissioned to create furniture and fit-out whole suites of rooms in major houses throughout England and Scotland.

One of his most profitable partnerships was with Robert Adam, the celebrated architect of the period. Whereas most other craftsmen were known to make items to Adam’s designs, there is only one known example of Chippendale following Adam’s designs. Instead, Chippendale was trusted by Adam to design and make appropriate furnishings for even the grandest of his designs.

Ruth Martin, Leeds City Museum’s curator of exhibitions, who has been bringing the exhibition together said:

“Chippendale is a man whose name will forever be inextricably linked with the truly exceptional quality of his craft, and it is that remarkable professional skill which has made his work so famous and sought-after across the world.

“But it’s likely that very few people know much about the man himself and how he rose from relatively humble beginnings in Leeds, honed his craft in London and worked tirelessly and innovatively to become a successful businessman as well as a mastercraftsman.

“Understanding more about how Chippendale strove to become the household name we know today adds an extra dimension to his work and helps us to build a deeper appreciation of the man behind these stunning pieces.”

Some of the key pieces featured in the exhibition include:

The Lady’s secretaire (1773) was originally made for the State Bedroom at Harewood House, near Leeds. It is made up of imported Chinese lacquer panels combined with specially made matching parts to create the final piece. Chippendale’s commission for Harewood lasted over 30 years and was worth around £10,000 – probably the most lavish furnishing scheme anywhere in 18th century England.

The Panshanger Cabinets (c 1773) were supplied to the first Viscount Melbourne, following his marriage to Elizabeth Millbanke, for their new home in Piccadilly, London. Elizabeth was one of the most influential Whig hostesses of her time, and a leader of fashion and taste. The couple spent lavishly, so that Melbourne House became known as “one of the best furnished and finished houses in London.”

The cabinet in the exhibition is part of a suite that is considered to be one of Chippendale’s most spectacular commissions; distinguished by the fact they are veneered in holly. In the 18th century they would have appeared almost white, with the marquetry insets heightened with dyes.

A large number of Chippendale’s commissions were for houses in Yorkshire. It is not known if this was in part due to Chippendale’s Yorkshire roots. At Newby Hall, near Ripon, Chippendale was commissioned to furnish the drawing room.

The exhibition features one of the armchairs (c. 1774) and this with the rest of the suite are the only pieces of Chippendale furniture known to have kept their original upholstery.

Chippendale created the furniture for the Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House. The featured armchair (1759) was used in the Blue Drawing Room, which also houses a magnificent bookcase by Chippendale, the only known example of that design. Dumfries House, 30 miles from Glasgow, and its contents were due to be sold in 2007.

Prince Charles stepped in to stop the collection being broken up and to preserve the house as a visitor attraction. The house is said to contain around 10% of the entire surviving Chippendale items in the world.

Councillor Brian Selby, Leeds City Council’s lead member for museums and galleries said:

“Chippendale clearly led a fascinating life and it’s a privilege for Leeds to be playing such an important part in telling his story.

“A self-made Leeds man, he had a real passion and determination to succeed and I’m sure that, 300 years after his birth, he would be proud to know that we are celebrating his incredible legacy here in the city where it all began.”

Thomas Chippendale: A celebration of craftsmanship and design, 1718-1779 runs from February 9, 2018 until June 9, 2018 and is free to attend.

Thomas Chippendale 1718-1779 a celebration of British craftsmanship and design:

9 February – 9 June 2018
Leeds City Museum
Free admission

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