Identify Classic Chairs

Classic Chairs now appear in our homes in more rooms than just the dining room. Classic chairs add elegance to almost any room in the house and can be upolstered in many of the new fabrics to create a stunning statement in your home.

Chippendale Chairs - Hepplewhite Chairs -Sheraton Chairs - Queen Anne Chair

It was not until the early years of the reign of George II that the Georgian period came into its own with Chippendale at its head. Some authorities include William and Mary and Queen Anne in the Georgian period, but the more usual idea is to divide it into several parts, better known as the times of Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. French influence is marked throughout and is divided into parts. The period of Chippendale was contemporaneous with that of Louis XV, and the second part included the other three men and corresponded with the last years of Louis XV, when the transition to Louis XVI was beginning, and the time of Louis XVI.

Chippendale Chairs

It was not until the latter part of Chippendale's life that he gave up his love of rococo curves and scrolls, dripping water effects, and his Chinese and Gothic styles. His early chairs had a Dutch feeling, and it is often only by ornamentation that one can date them.

A Chippendale chair from early in the 18th Century of Dutch type Design

The top of the Dutch chair had a flowing curve, the splat was first solid and plain, then carved, and later pierced in geometrical designs; then came the curves that were used so much by Chippendale. The carving consisted of swags and pendants of fruit and flowers, shells, acanthus leaves, scrolls, eagle's heads, carved in relief on the surface.

Dutch chairs were usually of walnut and some of the late ones were of mahogany. Mahogany was not used to any extent before 1720, but at that time it began to be imported in large quantities, and its lightness and the ease with which it could be worked made it appropriate for the lighter style of furniture then coming into vogue.

Chippendale began to make chairs with the curved top that is so characteristic of his work. The splat back was always used, in spite of the French, and its treatment is one of the most interesting things in the history of English furniture. It gave scope for great originality. Although, as I have said before, foreign influence was strong, the ideas were adapted and worked out by the great cabinet-makers of the Georgian period with a vigor and beauty that made a distinct English style, and often went far, far ahead of the originals.

There were, so far as we know, three Thomas Chippendales: the second was the great one. He was born in Worcester, England, about 1710, and died in 1779. He and his father, who was also a carver, came to London before 1727. Very little is known about his life, but we may feel sure he was that rare combination: a man of genius with decided business ability. He not only designed the furniture which was made in his shop, but executed a large part of it also, and superintended all the work done there by others. That he was a man of originality shows distinctly through his work, for although he adapted and copied freely and was strongly influenced by the Dutch, French, and "Chinese taste," there is always his own distinctive touch. The furniture of his best period, and those belonging to his school, has great beauty of line and proportion, and the exquisite carving shows a true feeling for ornament in relation to plain surfaces. There are a few examples in existence of carving in almost as high relief as that of Grinling Gibbons, swags, etc., and in his most rococo period his carving was very elaborate. It always had great clearness of edge and cut, and a wonderful feeling for light and shade. In what is called "Irish Chippendale," which was furniture made in Ireland after the style of Chippendale, the carving was in low relief and the edges fairly smoothed off, which made it much less interesting.

One of the Chippendale patterns, dating from about 1750

Chippendale looked upon his work as one of the arts and placed his ideal of achievement very high, and that he received the recognition of the best people of the time as an artist of merit is proved by his election to the Society of Arts with such men as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and others.

The genius of Chippendale justly puts him in the front rank of cabinet-makers and his influence was the foundation of much of the fine work done by many others during the eighteenth century. He is often criticized for his excessive rococo taste as displayed in the plates of the "Gentleman's and Cabinet-maker's Director," and in some of his finished work. Many of the designs in the "Director" were probably never carried out, and some of them were probably added to by the soaring imaginations of the engraver. This is true of all the books published by the great cabinet-makers, and it always seems more fair to have their reputations rest on their finished work which has come down to us.

The Chippendale chair has graced formal dining rooms and parlours for centuries.

Two important phases of Chippendale's work include —an elaborate ribbon-back chair, and one of the more staid Gothic type.

Chippendale Ribbon Back Chair

Chippendale Gothic Style Chair

In about 1760 or 1765 he began to use the straight leg for his chairs. The different shapes of splats will often help in deciding the dates of their making, and its development is of great interest. The curves shown in the diagram are the merest suggestions of the outline of the splat, and they were carved most beautifully in many different designs. Ribbon-back chairs are dated about 1755 and show the adapted French influence. His Gothic and Chinese designs were made about 1760-1770. Ladder-back chairs nearly always had straight legs, either plain or with double ogee curve and bead moldings, but there are a few examples of ladder-back and cabriole legs combined, although these are very rare. The chair settees of the Dutch time, with backs having the appearance of chairs side by side, were also made by Chippendale. "Love seats" were small settees. It was naïvely said that "they were too large for one and too small for two." A large armchair that shows a decided difference in the manners of the early eighteenth century and the present day was called the "drunkard's chair."

Chair Splat Designs Used By Chippendale Date Line

In America much of the furniture called Chippendale was not made by Chippendale himself, but was made after his designs and copied from imported pieces by clever cabinet-makers here in the, then, colonies. The average American of the eighteenth century was a simple and not over rich person of good breeding and refined taste who appreciated the fact that the elaborate furniture of England and France would not be in keeping with life in America, and so either imported the simpler kinds, or demanded that the home cabinet-maker choose good models for his work. This partly explains why we have so much really good Colonial furniture, and not so much of the elaborately carved and gilded variety.

Hepplewhite Chairs

The work of Hepplewhite and his school lasted from about 1760 to 1795; the last nine years of the time the business was carried on by his widow, Alice, under the name of A. Hepplewhite & Co. For five years after that some work was done after his manner, but it was distinctly inferior. In the early seventies Hepplewhite's work was so well known and so much admired that its influence was shown in the work of his contemporaries. There was a great difference between his style and that of Chippendale, his being much lighter in construction and effect, besides the many differences of design. Hepplewhite was strongly influenced by the French style of Louis XVI, and also the pure taste of Robert Adam at its height. Hepplewhite, however, like all the great cabinet-makers, both French and English, was a great genius himself and stamped the impress of his own personality upon his work.

Many people date Hepplewhite's fame from the time of the publication of his book, "The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide," in 1788, not realizing that he had been dead for two years when it appeared. Its publication was justified by the well established popularity of his furniture and the success with which his designs were carried out by A. Hepplewhite & Co.

It is interesting to notice the difference in the size of chairs which became apparent during Hepplewhite's time. Hoop-skirts and stiffened coats went out of fashion, and with them went the need of large chair seats. The transition chairs made by Hepplewhite were not very attractive in proportion, as the backs were too low for the width. The transition from Chippendale to Hepplewhite was not sudden, as the last style of Chippendale was simpler and had more of the classic feeling in it. Hepplewhite says, in the preface to his book: "To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable, has ever been considered a difficult, but an honorable task." He sometimes failed and sometimes succeeded. His knowledge of construction enabled him to make his chairs with shield, oval, and heart-shaped backs. The tops were slightly curved, also the tops of the splats, and at the lower edge where the back and the splat join, a half rosette was carved. He often used the three feathers of the Prince of Wales, sheaves of wheat, anthemion, urns, and festoons of drapery, all beautifully carved, and forming the splat. The backs of his chairs were supported at the sides by uprights running into the shield-shaped back and did not touch the seat frame in any other way. With this apparent weakness of construction it is wonderful how many of his chairs have come down to us in perfect condition, but it was his knowledge of combining lightness with strength which made it possible.

A modern Hepplewhite settee, showing the draped scarf carving he used so much.

Hepplewhite used straight or tapering legs with spade feet for his furniture, often inlaid with bellflowers in satinwood. The legs were sometimes carved with a double ogee curve and bead molding. He did not use carving in the lavish manner of Chippendale, but it was always beautifully done, and he used a great deal of inlay of satinwood, etc., oval panels, lines, urns, and many other motives common to the other cabinet-makers of the day, and also painted some of his furniture. His Japan work was inferior in every way to that of the early part of the eighteenth century. The upholstery was fastened to the chairs with brass-headed tacks, often in a festoon pattern. Oval-shaped brass handles were used on his bureaus, desks, and other furniture. He made many sideboards, some, in fact, going back to the side table and pedestal idea, and bottle-cases and knife-boxes were put on the ends of the sideboards. His regular sideboards were founded on Shearer's design.

Shearer's furniture was simple and dainty in design, and he has the honor of making the first real serpentine sideboard, about 1780, which was not a more or less disconnected collection of tables and pedestals. It was the forerunner of the Hepplewhite and Sheraton sideboards that we know so well. Shearer is now hardly known even by name to the general world, but without doubt his ideal of lightness and strength in construction had a good deal of influence on his contemporaries and followers.

Hepplewhite was very fond of oval and semi-circular shapes, and many of his tables are made in either one way or the other. His sideboards, founded on Shearer's designs, are very elegant, as he liked to say, in their simplicity of line, their inlay, and their general beauty of wood. He was most successful in his chairs, sideboards, tables, and small household articles, for his larger pieces of furniture were often too heavy. Some of the worst, however, were made by other cabinet-makers after his designs, and not by Hepplewhite himself.

Sheraton Chairs

Thomas Sheraton was born in 1750, and was a journeyman cabinet-maker when he went to London. His great genius for furniture design was combined with a love of writing tracts and sermons. Unfortunately for his success in life, he had a most disagreeable personality, being conceited, jealous, and perfectly willing to pour scorn on his brother cabinet-makers. This impression he quite frankly gives about himself in his books. The name of Robert Adam is not mentioned, and this seems particularly unpleasant when one thinks of the latter's undoubted influence on Sheraton's work. Sheraton's unfortunate disposition probably helped to make his life a failure.

It is very sad to see such possibilities as his not reaping their true reward, for poverty dogged his steps all through life, and he was always struggling for a bare livelihood. His books were not financially successful, and at last he gave up his workshop and ceased to make the furniture he designed. He was an expert draughtsman and his designs were carried out by the skillful cabinet-makers of the day. Adam Black gives a very pitiful account of the poverty in which Sheraton lived, and says: "That by attempting to do everything he does nothing." His "nothing," however, has proved a very big something in the years which have followed, for Sheraton is responsible for one of the most beautiful types of furniture the world has known, and although his life was hard and bitter, his fame is great.

Sheraton took the style of Louis XVI as his standard, and some of his best work is quite equal to that of the French workmen. He felt the lack of the exquisite brass and ormolu work done in France, and said if it were only possible to get as fine in England, the superior cabinet-making of the English would put them far ahead in the ranks. To many of us this loss is not so great, for the beauty of the wood counts for more, and is not detracted from by an oversupply of metal ornament, as sometimes happened in France. "Enough is as good as a feast." Sheraton, at his best, had beauty, grace, and refinement of line without weakness, lightness and yet perfect construction, combined with balance, and the ornament just sufficient to enhance the beauty of the article without overpowering it. It is this fine work which the world remembers and which gave him his fame, and so it is far better to forget his later period when nearly all trace of his former greatness was lost.

Sheraton profited by the work of Chippendale, Adam, and Hepplewhite, for these great men blazed the trail for him, so to speak, in raising the art of cabinet-making to so high a plane that England was full of skilled workmen. The influence of Adam, Shearer, and Hepplewhite, was very great on his work, and it is often difficult to tell whether he or Hepplewhite or Shearer made some pieces. He evidently did not have business ability and his bitter nature hampered him at every turn. The Sheraton school lasted from about 1790 to 1806. He died in 1806, fairly worn out with his struggle for existence. Poor Sheraton, it certainly is a pitiful story.

Sheraton's chair backs are rectangular in type, with urn splats, and splats divided into seven radiates, and also many other designs. The chairs were made of mahogany and satinwood, some carved, some inlaid, and some painted. The splat never ran into the seat, but was supported on a cross rail running from side to side a few inches above the seat. The material used for upholstery was nailed over the frame with brass-headed tacks.

Bookcases were of mahogany and satinwood veneer, and the large ones were often in three sections, the center section standing farther out than the two sides. The glass was covered with a graceful design in moldings, and the pediments were of various shapes, the swan-neck being a favorite.

Sideboards were built on very much the lines of those made by Shearer and Hepplewhite. There were drawers and cupboards for various uses. The knife-boxes to put on the top came in sets of two, and sometimes there was a third box. The legs were light and tapering with inlay of satinwood, and sometimes they were reeded. There was inlay also on the doors and drawers. There were also sideboards without inlay. The legs for his furniture were at first plain, and then tapering and reeded. He used some carving, and a great deal of satinwood and tulip-wood were inlaid in the mahogany; he also used rosewood. The bellflower, urn, festoons, and acanthus were all favorites of his for decoration.

He made some elaborate and startling designs for beds, but the best known ones are charming with slender turned posts or reeded posts, and often the plain ones were made of painted satinwood.

The satinwood from the East Indies was fine and of a beautiful yellow color, while that from the West Indies was coarser in grain and darker in color. It is a slow growing tree, and that used nowadays cannot compare with the old, in spite of the gallant efforts of the hard working fakirs to copy its beautiful golden tone.

All the cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century made ingenious contrivances in the way of furniture, washstands concealed in what appear to be corner cupboards, a table that looks as simple as a table possibly can, but has a small step-ladder and book rest hidden away in its useful inside, and many others. Sheraton was especially clever in making these conveniences, as these two examples show, and his books have many others pictured in them. Sheraton's list of articles of furniture is long, for he made almost everything from knife-boxes to "chamber-horses," which were contrivances of a saddle and springs for people to take exercise upon at home.

An admirable example of the Sheraton style mahogany settee with original silk covering.

Sheraton's "Drawing Book" was the best of those he published. It was sold chiefly to other cabinet-makers and did not bring in many orders, as Chippendale's and Hepplewhite's did. His other books showed his decline, and his "Encyclopedia," on which he was working at the time of his death, had many subjects in it beside furniture and cabinet-making. His sideboards, card-tables, sewing-tables, tables of every kind, chairs—in fact, everything he made during his best period—have a sureness and beauty of line that makes it doubly sad that through the stress of circumstances he should have deserted it for the style of the Empire that was then the fashion in France. One or two of his Empire designs have beauty, but most of them are too dreadful, but it was the beginning of the end, and the eighteenth century saw the beautiful principles of the eighteenth century lost in a bog of ugliness.

There were many other cabinet-makers of merit that space does not allow me to mention, but the great four who stood head and shoulders above them all were Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. They, being human, did much work that is best forgotten, but the heights to which they all rose have set a standard for English furniture in beauty and construction that it would be well to keep in mind.

The nineteenth century passed away without any especial genius, and in fact, with a very black mark against its name in the hideous early Victorian era. The twentieth century is moving along without anything we can really call a beautiful and worthy style being born. There are many working their way towards it, but there is apt to be too much of the bizarre in the attempts to make them satisfactory, and so we turn to the past for our models and are thankful for the legacy of beauty it has left to the world.

Queen Anne Chair

"Queen Anne" furniture is a very elastic term, for it is often used to cover the reigns of William and Mary, Queen Anne, George I, and a part of the reign of George II, or, in other words, all the time of Dutch influence. The more usual method is to leave out William and Mary, but at best the classification of furniture is more or less arbitrary, for in England, as well as other countries, the different styles overlap each other. Chippendale's early work was distinctly influenced by the Dutch.

Walnut superseded oak in popularity, and after 1720 mahogany gradually became the favorite. There was a good deal of walnut veneering done, and the best logs were saved for the purpose. Marquetry died out and gave place to carving, and the cabriole leg, one of the chief marks of Dutch influence, became a firmly fixed style. The carving was put on the knees and the legs ended in claw and ball and pad feet. Some chairs were simply carved with a shell or leaf or scroll on top rail and knees of the legs. In the more elaborately carved chairs the arms, legs, splat, and top rail were all carved with acanthus leaves, or designs from Gibbons's decoration. Chairs were broad in the seat and high of back with wide splats, often decorated with inlay, in the early part of the period. The top rail curved into the side uprights, and the seat was set into a rebate or box-seat. The chair backs slowly changed in shape, becoming broader and lower, the splat ceased to be inlaid and was pierced and carved, and the whole chair assumed the shape made so familiar to us by Chippendale.


A reproduction of a walnut chair with cane seat and back, of the William and Mary period.

Tables usually had cabriole legs, although there were some gate-or thousand-legged, tables, and card tables, writing-tables, and flap-tables, were all used. It was in the Queen Anne period that highboys and lowboys made their first appearance.


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