Christie's major summer sale of English furniture on 9 July contained real Chippendale furniture from three different houses, an extraordinarily rich offering. Magnificent gold and silver mirrors from Harewood House, West Yorkshire, included '2 Exceeding neat & Rich Carved Gerandoles . . . finished in burnished Silver', thus described in the 1775 bill when they cost pounds 40; this time round they fetched pounds 319,00. A pair of mahogany chairs with carved lyre-shaped backs and reeded legs, from a set made for Lord Melbourne's library at Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, made pounds 57,750. And a pair of 'Very neat Commodes', with marquetry inlay of classical urns, paterae and swags, supplied for pounds 58 in 1774 to Mr William Constable of Mansfield Street, London, attracted no bid during the auction and were bought in at pounds 75,000; a buyer turned up after the sale, who was prepared to pay something nearer Christie's pounds 200,000- pounds 300,000 estimate.
Oddly, most of the furniture known to have come from Chippendale's workshop, doesn't look very 'Chippendale'. His tremendous fame has until recently been based on the designs contained in his pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, first published in 1754 and revised in 1756 and 1762. These designs are the nearest that staid British furniture ever came to the elaboration of rococo, with delicious bits of Chinoiserie and Neo-Gothic thrown in. Any furniture remotely resembling his patterns used, until recently, to be referred to generically as 'Chippendale'.
His most characteristic pieces would be mahogany chairs with elaborately carved ribbon backs, or library bookcases with elegantly patterned glazing bars, or richly carved giltwood mirrors. Most of this 'Chippendale' furniture was made by other cabinetmakers, using Chippendale's designs. Client and craftsman would have had Chippendale's book, and the client would pick the design.
A mahogany display cabinet, sold at Sotheby's last week, had glazing bars taken from one plate in Chippendale's Director, carved cupboard doors from another and its 'gothic' fretwork stand from a third. It was correctly described as 'in the manner of Chippendale', and made pounds 13,200 against an estimate of pounds 20,000- pounds 25,000.
In contrast, most of the Chippendale furniture from stately homes is in restrained neo-classical style, owing much to the architect Robert Adam. The book of designs made Chippendale's reputation, but it was only after his fame had spread that aristocratic clients began to commission furniture from him. And by that time, rococo was out and neo-classical was in.
A two-volume book by Christopher Gilbert, published in 1978 and entitled The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, has changed the whole way that we look at his furniture. When the first serious book on Chippendale came out in 1924, only 12 of his customers were identified; Gilbert raised the figure to 65 and illustrated hundreds of surviving pieces.
But even Gilbert can't tell us much about Chippendale, the man. He was born in 1718 at Otley, West Yorkshire, to a family of small-time carpenters and joiners, and in 1748 he married Catherine Redshaw in St George's Chapel, Mayfair. Nobody thought of writing the biography of lowly cabinetmakers in those days; his life has to be traced from church and other official records, or from letters to clients. After the publication of his pattern book in 1754, he found a financial backer called James Rannie, and opened a workshop in St Martin's Lane, London, which he and his son Thomas ran for 60 years. He didn't make the furniture himself, of course; he was the business genius who ran the firm. But his knowledge of carpentry meant that he set high standards; his furniture has tremendous strength of design and finish.
Since Gilbert's book came out, three kinds of 'Chippendale' furniture have been identified: pieces 'by Thomas Chippendale' means they are documented with bills; 'attributed to Thomas Chippendale' means they are made in a manner identical to furniture known to have come from his workshop; and 'in the manner of Thomas Chippendale' means that they use designs from his Director.
This is only one example of the impact furniture historians have had on the English market. Furniture used to be bought as decoration, with a premium paid for great design and craftsmanship.
Nowadays, if you can add an historical context, the price will rise five to 10 times. Research into furniture history has become an industry, keenly supported by the Furniture History Society, founded in 1964.
The moment when the market suddenly began to value 'history' can be placed fairly precisely in the early 1980s. Carved mahogany settees, from a suite of furniture commissioned in the 1750s by the Earl of Shaftesbury for St Giles's House in Dorset, have turned up so regularly at auction that they have served as a marker to pinpoint the moment the jump in price occurred. One settee fetched pounds 22,000 in June 1980; the next, pounds 126,500 in November 1983. The price was going down again last week when Christie's sold another pair of these settees for pounds 165,000.
The St Giles's suite is among the grandest rococo furniture that has lost its attribution to Chippendale. The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, boasting in 1855 of 'the Traditions of the Mansion and Estate received from my Father', described the settees and chairs as 'very valuable and fine, by Chippendale'.
They reflect designs in the Director, but the bills were paid to one William Hallett, who formed a syndicate in the early 1750s with two neighbours in St Martin's Lane, William Vile and John Cobb, later cabinetmakers to King George III.
History was much to the fore at Christie's and Sotheby's sales of English furniture earlier this month. Each tends to hold back the year's best offerings for the July sales; but the recession made for erratic prices.
Sotheby's had a magnificent desk, which it estimated at pounds 500,000 to pounds 700,000, but failed to sell; negotiations were said to be under way after the sale. The desk is based on a design in Chippendale's Director, but was made by the leading provincial cabinetmakers, Gillows of Lancaster, for Sir James Ibbetson of Denton Hall in Otley, Chippendale's birthplace. Sir James also commissioned furniture direct from Chippendale, the local genius; but London was a long way away, and it was presumably cheaper to have it made by Gillows, just over the Pennines.
Despite Sotheby's failure with the desk and one or two lesser failures at Christie's, dealers were amazed by the success of the two sales. These companies are doing very little business and, as a result, hardly bidding at auction.
Nearly all the bidding came from private people: a mix of English, American, Swiss, Italian and some South American, according to Graham Child, Sotheby's furniture director. The recession has increased the number of private collectors attending his sales in the hope of bargains, he says. And there were plenty of bargains to be had.-
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