If you’re an antique lover you’re probably familiar with Mr. Chippendale, Mr. Hepplewhite, and Mr. Sheraton. Their names are are tossed around a lot out there by merchants and collectors alike when describing antique furniture styles. But the names aren’t always used accurately. Oops! When someone calls you by the wrong name don’t you cringe a little inside? Don’t you imagine that all three of these men (if they were still on this earth) would cringe as well when their works of design genius are mis-identified?
If you think about it, recognizing a furniture style is not really that different from telling real live people apart. Using clues to jog your memory can make it easier. It’s simply a matter of taking a good long overall look, noticing different features, and using that info to remember who’s who.
So, let’s really get to know Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton… “The Big Three” of furniture design during England’s Georgian period.
To get started let’s take a look the things that these great furniture designers had a in common.
First, they were all English subjects of King George in the 1700s. Throughout history prevailing styles were named for the reigning monarch, so the furniture designs later attributed to these three men are of the Georgian Period. It was much later in the 19th century that furniture collectors coined the style names Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton to describe Georgian era furnishings with certain characteristics.
All three men received some sort of training in the furniture making trade, went on to pursue business in that field, and eventually succeeded in becoming the tastemakers of their day. For the most part each was involved in only the design aspect, not the actual construction of their furniture designs. The work of fulfilling furniture commissions was the job of workshops where talented cabinetmakers and joiners used the designers’ specifications to build exquiste pieces for those who could afford it.
All three were self-promoters who achieved their fame with self-published style books called “directors” that featured design variations of the current English and French furniture styles. These richly illustrated style books could be compared to our modern “must have” coffee table books. Anyone who was anyone throughout Europe and beyond purchased subscriptions to receive the original and updated editions.
Page after page of detailed drawings and diagrams provided guidelines for crafting fine furniture to grace the grand residences of royalty as well as the homes of the expanding well-to-do classes in British society. All sorts of pieces were designed to be executed with the best materials the world had to offer… fine grained mahogany from the West Indies, satinwood, tulipwood, rosewood, etc. Decoration included detailed carving, highly polished inlay, intricate “japanned” painting, and gilt finishes.
Georgian Style became known as Federal Style in America after the colonies won their independence from England. American-made Georgian and Federal furniture of the 1700’s was every bit as fine and stately as English Georgian, but less opulent. Either by necessity or because of more provincial tastes American cabinetmakers somethimes made a few functional and decorative changes such as the use of native woods and painted details in the place of inlay.
“The Big Three” have been a major influence in the world of interior design ever since their original 18th century Georgian Period designs were introduced.
Furnishings in the all three 18th century styles have never completely out of production. Classic pieces of “good wood” are often used to add an aire of distinction to interior spaces even in times when traditional interiors are not the prevailing trend.
Now for the differences. What characters these designers were! And it shows in their signature styles. So, let’s take a closer look at the lives and works of each man. Let’s start at the beginning with…
“Entrepreneur Extraordinaire” THOMAS CHIPPENDALE II (1718-1779)
Thomas Chippendale II was the first of the three to base his business in London, the center of high society and success in England. He was the son Thomas Senior of a “joiner” (furniture maker) and his son Thomas III also followed the family trade. Chippendale became quite famous in his day after his 1754 publication of “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director” and its updated editions for “people of distinction.” His director was purchased mostly by cabinetmakers but also by architects, sculptors, gentry, and nobility, throughout the “modern” world. As a result recognizable examples of Chippendale’s styles could be made everywhere for those who could afford the luxury of custom built furnishings in the latest style. Chippendale understood the relationship between design and craftmanship so his pieces are often functional and practical as well a beautiful.
Chippendale’s earliest designs are in a refined Georgian style influenced by furniture of the previous Queen Anne era. However, Thomas was was sort of a “But, wait! That’s not all!” kind of guy. He went on to design several other signature Chippendale looks in addition to his elaboratly carved mahogany Decorated Queen Anne variations like his signature dining chair pictured here…
He went on to design with particular themes in mind…. like the exotic latticed and lacquered Chinese Chippendale style influenced by trade with the Far East…
and the elaborate Rococo French Chippendale style, influenced by ornate styles in France…
and the Gothic Chippendale style with its pointed arches reflecting the architecture of English cathedrals built in centuries gone by…
Chippendale was noted for his chairs, sofas, mirrors, canopy beds, casegoods, serving tables, tea stands, etc. etc. etc. But, no sideboards. Any so-called Chippendale sideboards from this period were made by cabinetmakers who simply incorporated details seen on authentic Chippendale furniture into pieces of their own design.
Chippendale’s original designs, like the man himself, all have huge personalities. He is known for his big bold brass hardware. Other stand-outs are fretwork moulding, intricately carved cabriole legs with ball and claw feet on chairs, and squared bracket feet on casegoods. These features can still be seen on reproductions and modern adaptations of the style.
But Chippendale was so much more than a just a cabinetmaker. He was a keen entrepreneur who knew how to market luxury goods. So, he took his company to even greater success by accepting commissions to provide total Chippendale style in the homes of the wealthy. In much the same way as an interior designer works today, Chippendale supervised others specialists to supply fully decorated and furnished rooms or whole houses, once the principal construction was done. Chippendale received many of these large-scale commissions from aristocratic clients.
Well, Mr. Chippendale is the type of person who would love for us to keep talking about him, don’t you think? But, let’s move ahead 30 years to meet…
“The Man of Mystery” – GEORGE HEPPLEWHITE (1727? – 1786)
Little is known of George Hepplewhite’s life… so little in fact that there is some doubt about his being the real brains behind the style we call Hepplewhite. There is some evidence that he was apprenticed to a furniture maker in Lancaster, moved to London, and opened a shop there. But, he died in 1786 without leaving much of a mark in the design world. The administration of his estate and his profitable business was granted to his widow, Alice Hepplewhite. Alice and business partners carried on under her name not George’s… “A. Hepplewhite & Co”. So, it was actually Alice who published the Hepplewhite book “The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide” in 1788. Hepplewhite’s style and reputation rest solely on this guide. Pieces of furniture based on its illustrations are rare, and no piece can definitely be attributed to Hepplewhite’s firm, nor can his personal responsibility for the designs be established. There is some speculation that it was Alice who was the “real” designer of Hepplewhite instead of George. It’s a history mystery.
Hepplewhite furniture dates from about 1780-1810. It’s simplicity reflects the neo-classical style influences in France inspired by motifs from ancient Greek artifacts and architecture. Compared to Chippendale, Hepplewhite’s famed style is more easily identifiable. There is a lightness and elegance to his designs. It’s delicately shaped and well balanced, made of beautifully polished woods. Carving is not the hallmark of Hepplewhite… dark mahogany with beautiful inlay decorations of lighter satinwood and other fancy woods are used. Chests and other case pieces often have splayed feet. Brasses are simple oval backs with bale pulls.
The chairs are graceful with backs and short arms that are gently curved. Slender straight legs are square or tapered. To complement the legs, the chair feet are simple, too… a spade foot is most common. A shield-shaped chairback is a definite Hepplewhite “tell” but ovalbacks and heartbacks are used as well.
And, finally let’s talk about the last man on the Georgian scene.
“Last But Not Least” – THOMAS SHERATON (1751 to 1806)
London was already the great center for the furniture world when in 1790 Thomas Sheraton arrived at to set up shop. By the time Thomas Sheraton began designing furniture both Chippendale and Hepplewhite were no longer living, Although Sheraton’s designs were on the whole original, naturally his work came under the various influences of his predecessors. He was not only a trained cabinetmaker but also a Baptist minister and teacher of perspective drawing, architectural drawing, and geometry. His various fields of interest enabled him to develop plans for furniture pieces that were well-engineered to combine simple beauty, lightness, and strength. His first publication “The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book” was published in bi-weekly installments from 1791 to 1794. It was intended to be a guide to cabinetmakers and included explanations of geometry and perspective in addition to furntiture drawings.
Sheraton’s styles and Hepplewhite’s have a great deal in common, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. However, Sheraton’s style tends to be simpler, almost severe in comparison, and favors what has been called “a fiercely rectilinear silhouette.” Fierce might be an over statement, but the style does rely heavily on straight lines much more than Hepplewhite’s. Sheraton swept away the curves in chairs, tables, and practically all his other designs. Sheraton’s furniture style, like Hepplewhite’s, is also characterized by contrasting veneers and inlays. For the base, satinwood was a favorite but mahogany and beech were also popular.
Sheraton pieces usually have straight legs although they can be tapered at times. They are often rounded (another distinction from Hepplewhite) and frequently reeded, in imitation of classical columns. Complementing the slim, straight legs of a chair or table, Sheraton-style feet are usually simple and rounded as well with a tapered, spade, or arrow foot. Typical hardware is simple… round embossed brass knobs instead of pulls featuring lion’s heads, rosettes, or urns.
Pieces are embellished with small, low-relief carvings or painted designs, along with intricately patterned and detailed marquetry and veneers, often in dramatically contrasting woods. Some pieces are completely painted. Common decorative motifs include drapery swags, lyres, ribbons, fans, feathers, urns and flowers in the neoclassical tradition.
All Sheraton pieces have simple but strong, well-proportioned geometric shapes, that are usually square or rectangular. Sofa and chair arms often flow cleanly into the back, without a noticeable break, and the backs themselves are square-shaped. The square-back sofa with exposed arms and reeded legs is perhaps the quintessential Sheraton piece.
Sheraton is credited with popularizing the placement of gathered silk behind the glass doors of bookcases, cabinets, and sideboards. He had a penchant for including secret drawers and mechanisms for sliding sections on secretaries, tables, and desks. He paid particular attention to the development of sideboards.
Sheraton was the last of the great eighteenth century designers. Although he was not, as his predecessors were, in direct contact with those who bought the furniture his style had great longevity. His style was especially popular in America as part of the Federal Style. It’s influence is seen in the Duncan Phyfe… an American style of the early 19th century. Sheraton style elements can also be seen in England’s early 19th century Regency Style.
DEVELOPING YOUR “EYE FOR DESIGN”
Now you know a little bit more to help you remember Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. But the best way is to spend some “up close and personal” time with them. By looking at authentic antique Georgian and Federal pieces you’ll develop a eye for not only recognizing original pieces but their “descendents”… older antique reproductions as well as current ones and modern adaptations.
Georgian Revival pieces were every popular in Victorian times of the 1900s. The Victorians embellished to appeal to their dramatic, detail-heavy tastes of that era. Matching sets in the Georgian style came into being at this time. While these are antiques in their own right today, in comparison they do not have the finely crafted details found in the originals of the 18th century.
Authentic Georgian and Federal period pieces survive in extraordinarily wonderful condition in museums and at historical sites, where they are admired not only for their beauty but for the excellence of construction that has helped them survive over 250 years. Plan to take a “time travel” visit to places like Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur Museum, the Met in NYC, etc. to immerse yourself in an authentic 18th century atmosphere and get a really good close-up look at authentic period pieces.
The popularity of the Georgian/Federal style enjoyed several similar periods of revival and revision during the 20th century. It’s a style that may fade in popularity from time to time but has never completely disappeared from the design scene.
Today the manufacture of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton furniture continues. The best reproductions are commissioned benchmade pieces… exact replicas of their original 18th century counterparts. But most of the pieces made today are mass produced repros with a mix of pseudo-18th century details as well as size and proportion changes. It’s 18th century styling that gives a nod to the originals as well 21st century styling that appeals to today’s overall interior trends, modern comfort standards, and affordability.
When speaking of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton it’s perfectly correct to just go for the easiest labels… English Style… or 18th Century Style…. or Georgian Style. As your “eye for design” develops you’ll be able use more specific names with ease. Just remember that only authentic pieces that date to the 1700’s can be called Georgian Period.
Many wonderful eaxamples of 18th Century Styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton are found in antique stores today and Montgomery Antiques & Interiors is no exception. Visit our store to browse or shop the featured online selections.
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