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Thomas Chippendale and His Legendary Chairs

Chairs crafted by Thomas Chippendale were dazzling examples of quality furniture in their day. Today, they remain extraordinary examples of antique furniture. Chippendale style, ball and claw and ladder backs, there's lots to know. Here's your guide to one of the world's most celebrated chairs.

Who is He.

Thomas Chippendale (1714-1779) was an English furniture maker in the mid 18th century whose work was influenced by English, French and Chinese furniture design.

A Book Made Him a Household Name.

In 1754, Thomas Chippendale published the first of three editions of his book, Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director. It put him on the map. This illustrated directory showed examples of the furniture that Thomas Chippendale could make for his customers. Wealthy clients could see illustrated examples, pick out the designs that they liked which would be handcrafted in his workshop. At the time, Thomas Chippendale probably didn't expect that this book would become so widely copied for so many years by other furniture makers. It continues to be used today.

A Claim to Fame.

Thomas Chippendale was the first non-reigning monarch to have a furniture style named after him. Before Thomas Chippendale, furniture styles were named after reigning Monarchs such as Louis XIV, George I, Queen Anne.

Chippendale versus Chippendale Style.

Anything made by Thomas Chippendale's workshop in England is a Chippendale. Furniture made incorporating the features used by Thomas Chippendale is Chippendale-style. American Chippendale refers to Chippendale style furniture that was made in the US ? mostly in Philadelphia.

Chippendale Style Particulars.

The style reflected elements of the Rococo, Chinese, Gothic and Noeclassical styles. Deep hand carving was prevalent. Common motifs were of shells, lions, masques, eggs, darts and scrolls.

Favorite Wood.

Mahogany was preferred choice of wood for Chippendale style furniture. Solid wood; not veneers was often used because of the detailed carving involved.

A Lesson in Legs.

There are six basic style ? lion's paw, ball and claw, the late Chippendale, the Marlborough, the club and the spade. Early Chippendale furniture used the cabriole leg which is a serpentine style ending with a lion's paw, ball and claw or the club. The late Chippendale, Marlborough and spade were straight legs and appeared later in the period.

Seat Selection.

Chippendale style chairs were wood, upholstered or caned.

Chair Back Choice.

Upholstered, rail backs, ladder backs, rung back, splat backs, carved backs, ribband backs. The chair backs are one of the most definitive parts of the chair that typify the style. Ribband backs are carved to look like bow. Very few were made in the 18th century because it required expert craftsmen and was very time-consuming. And very few survived passed the 18th C. Most ribband back chairs around today were made in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What to Look for When Buying.

Look for original condition. Repairs and replacement lower the value. Actual pieces from Thomas Chippendale's workshop are rare indeed. Make sure the provenance is strong documented when a dealer says it is a Thomas Chippendale versus a Chippendale style chair. Keep in mind that very few ribband back chairs survived from the 18th century. Be wary when someone tells you that they have one.

Reproductions Versus Antiques.

You can tell modern reproductions from the real thing by looking closely at the carving. Is it uniform in depth and symmetrical? If so, it's a modern reproduction. Antique Chippendale's would be hand carved which is irregular in depth and never exactly symmetrical because it's virtually impossible for even a master artisan to achieve it.

Pricing.

Any Chippendale 18th century chair whether it was made by Thomas Chippendale himself or one of his contemporaries will cost several thousands of dollars. If it's not in that price range, it's most likely not 18th century. Even high quality modern reproductions can be pricey.

Martin Swinton owns Take-A-Boo Emporium located in Toronto, Canada. He has appeared on a variety of television programs; does furniture restoration; caning and rushing repairs; appraisals and has taught courses on antiques at the Learning Annex. Martin can be reached at http://www.takeaboo.com

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