THE great name in chair making is Chippendale. For many years before and after the middle of the eighteenth century, he flourished in London, and his famous book, "The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director," published in 1754 and sold mainly to the trade, brought him posthumous reputation as well as immediate business. Ever since then the strongest and handsomest chairs used in England and America, and to some extent in Germany, have been Chippendale chairs made in the master's own shop or reproduced from them and from Chippendale's book.
Thomas Chippendale was a genius in the workroom. Chinese and Rococo, Dutch and Gothic, were all alike to him. From bad designs, as well as from good designs, made by architects as well as by professional furniture designers, he produced models that are marvelous for beauty of proportion and comfort in use. One may rail at the fragility of cheap American-made Louis XV and Sheraton chairs, but of Chippendale chairs even the faintest transatlantic echoes seldom lack apparent as well as real solidity.
I. Rococo Chippendale chair at $ 55.
2. Hepplewhite arm-chair at $ 63.
3. Hogarth arm-chair, with hand - painted splat, at $ 85.
4. Queen Anne arm-chair at $33.
5. Adam arm-chair at $50.
6. Colonel Lyon ribbon-back Chippendale arm-chair at $90.
7. Louis XVI tapestry-covered arm-chair at $700.
8. Chinese Chippendale arm-chair at $ 55.
9. Ladder-back Chippendale chair, $35.
Distinctive of Chippendale chairs is the openwork of the splat in the back. Chairs of the Hogarth and Queen Anne type, that preceded Chippendale, have a solid splat like Nos. 3 and 4. No. 4 is a particularly simple model and can be used in any spacious room with Classic background. Of Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs in general, it may be said that the architectural background of the former tends to be French, and of the latter Italian, with heavy architectural ornament in the form of mantels and pediments and tabernacles in bold wood or plaster relief.
While the accepted name for the decorative style that prevailed during the reigns of George I and George II is Georgian, the principal style of the period of George III is Adam. The Scotch architects, the four brothers Adam, of whom Robert was chief, dominated not only architecture but also interior furnishings. Robert Adam was a Classic of the Classics, drawing his inspiration direct from ancient Roman originals, particularly the palace of Diocletian at Spalatro, which he described and illustrated in a book of wonderful drawings. It is stupid to talk of a Hepplewhite or a Sheraton style, as is often done. Hepplewhite was a maker and Sheraton a designer of furniture who followed where Robert Adam led. It was theirs to take, not give, orders, and Hepplewhite, as well as other London cabinet-makers, was only too happy to be allowed to execute the designs of the distinguished architect.
Architecture and furniture of the Adam period were characterized by lightness and grace. Straight lines took the place of curves and scrolls. Simple compo-ornamented columns and pilasters formed the framework and Greco-Roman floral wreaths, ribbon-tied husks and drapery festoons were favorite motifs. Delicate paneled ornamentation, sometimes in compo, sometimes painted by artists like Angelica Kauffmann, and like Pergolesi, was freely employed.
Noticeable about Adam and Hepplewhite and Sheraton chairs is the light construction as compared with those of Chippendale. They are smaller and lighter and look comparatively less solid than they really are. Moreover, there is no longer any splat running down the middle of the back into the frame of the seat and making for strength. The Classic backs, as illustrated by Nos. 2 and 5, rested on the side posts only.
But it is noteworthy that the only chairs Chippendale built for Robert Adam came through absolutely Chippendale in construction and feeling, though completely Classic in line and after designs by Adam.
Characteristic of Hepplewhite are his chair backs shaped like shields or hearts. His favorite legs were square, tapering down almost to fragility, but often strengthened by the spade foot. Ornamental forms that he loved, sometimes painted, sometimes in low relief, were ribbons, flowers, husks, urns, and the wheat ear that is as characteristic of him as the lyre is of Sheraton.
Sheraton's carved forms were also very simple and very conventional - the cornice dentil, the Greek egg and dart, the laurel, the berry. His inlays were medallions, fans, vases, shells. His chair backs were often composed of four, five or seven uprights, slender and variously shaped. His chair legs were slender and tapering, and sometimes round but usually square. The arms of his armchairs started high on the back, thus supporting it and rendering unnecessary the heavy splat of Chippendale.
The French style contemporary with that of Adam was Louis XVI, also a Classic style. No. 7, a superior model in dull gold, with seat and back upholstered in real Aubusson tapestry, and with tapestry cushions on the arms, costs $700. It is well worth the price, but of course is only suited for a very fine interior. There are many Louis XVI chairs in gilt or enamel or walnut of exquisite lines and beautiful construction at comparatively small prices, suitable for either French or English Classic interiors.
Of the furniture most commonly regarded as Colonial, much is not only post-Colonial but post-eighteenth century. In these late Colonial pieces the Empire feeling is strong, and there is a marked similarity to the contemporaneous furniture of Germany, called Biedermeier by the Germans. An example of this late Colonial style is the so-called Abraham Lincoln chair used by the Lincolns in their home at Springfield, 111., from 1844 to 1861. It was finished in ebony with painted decorations in gold. The reproduction of the side chair sells for $ 15; arm chair to match is $20.
All of the chairs illustrated in this chapter were "made in America." This does not mean that we are beating out the English at their own game. Far from it. For many years to come they will continue to send us chairs in the various English styles. For the making of a good chair, like the weaving of a good tapestry, depends more on the workman than on the design, and the best English workmen stay in England, while our American boys become clerks rather than learn a trade. But we have at last reached the point where only the very best English is better than or as good as our best.
Especially interesting to visit are the furniture factories of the English town of High Wycombe, not far from London. They use machinery less and men more than on the American side of the Atlantic. And they have methods and traditions of workmanship that are invaluable. But they certainly do concentrate their attention on chairs. I had not been in the burg ten minutes before I was invited to visit an ancient inn that enshrines the local Palladium - the Beaconsfield chair. It seems that the first time Disraeli ran for Parliament, he ran in this district and was so confident of election that he had a big chair built in which as victor he might be carried around in triumph by his faithful supporters. Alas! He not only lost the election but apparently forgot about the chair or no longer liked the idea of it. At any rate he never claimed it.