senior was born in Otley,
the small market town in the Yorkshire dales, and was baptised
in the parish church there on 5th June 1718. His family
had long been involved in the wood working and timber trades
and he was probably received a practical apprenticeship from
his father. He may well have had further training with Richard
Wood, the leading furniture maker in York, before moving to London.
In 1748 he married a Susan Redshaw and in due course they had
worked as a journeyman cabinet maker and freelance designer before
embarking on his great project, the publication of his lavish
book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director.
This appeared in 1754 and illustrated 161 engraved plates of ‘Elegant
and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese
and Modern Taste’. It was almost immediately sold out and
was reprinted in a second edition the following year. A third
edition, with many new plates, appeared in 1762.
Chippendale’s Director was
the first attempt in England to publish a book of designs for
furniture as means of self-promotion. The result was that his
business immediately became known to a wide circle of potential
clients and for ever afterwards his name became by-word for a
distinctive rococo style.
In the same year as
the publication of the Director in 1754 Chippendale acquired
new premises at 60 – 62 St Martin’s Lane, in the
heart of the fashionable shopping area of London. For the next
60 years all his clients’ furniture emerged from this address
until 1813 when his talented son, who had inherited the business,
was finally ejected following his bankruptcy.
himself as an ‘upholder’ which implied that he was
able to supply his clients with furnishings of every kind. In
effect he was an entrepreneur running a large business employing
perhaps as many as 50 in-house craftsmen and any number of out-workers.
He was the artistic director of the enterprise supervising the
workforce and its production, appeasing clients and always keeping
one step ahead of new fashions. Ideally he preferred long-running
commissions to equip large country or town houses from attic
to basement, with grand pieces for the reception rooms (including
wallpapers and textiles), ‘neat but substantially good’ items
for the family rooms, and utilitarian objects for the servants.
A number of houses bear witness to this practice to this day,
for example Harewood
House and Nostell
Priory. But Chippendale also supplied ‘off
the peg’ items to casual customers, he seems to have had
a good line, for example, in elegant hexagonal tea or work tables
selling at about four guineas each. He also had an important
wholesale business in importing large sheets of French mirror
glass, by far the most expensive item in any furnishing scheme.
He was even prepared to act as an undertaker for valued clients.
Research to date has
identified over seventy of Chippendale’s clients, their
patronage being documented in invoices, payments in account books
and entries in bank ledgers. About 600 pieces of furniture can
be attributed to his workshop on the basis of documentation or
convincing stylistic affinities, substantially more than any
of his contemporaries or rivals. The development of his style
can be traced from the Director-style rococo furniture
made for Dumfries House (late 1750s), through the early Adam-inspired
pieces for Sir Laurence Dundas (early-mid 1760s), to the mature
neo-Classicism of Harewood (early 1770s), leading ultimately
to the super-refined elegance of Burton Constable (late 1770s).
By this date it seems
likely that his son, Thomas Chippendale junior was in control
of the artistic side of the business. Chippendale senior died
in 1778, having re-married the previous year and fathering another