Thomas Chippendale
Answer to Name This Famous Person Game - February 2012

by Mike McLeod

Every antiquer knows the name of Thomas Chippendale, but few know his face or his story. Grady Mullis of Queen of Hearts of Antiques in Marietta, Ga., and Tim Kilkelly of Treasure Alley in Arcadia, Fla., knew his face.

Thomas Chippendale was born near Otley, England, which is 196 miles north of London in West Yorkshire. His exact date of birth is unclear, but he was baptized on June 5, 1718, so it is believed he was born early in June. His parents were John Chippendale, a carpenter and joiner, and Mary Drake.

Thomas Chippendale (Photo, © Copyright Michael Ely.)

Thomas Chippendale

Thomas entered his father’s trade of woodworking, and he later trained with other craftsmen in York and London before opening his own business as a cabinetmaker.

Thomas’ first wife was Catherine Redshaw, whom he married in London on May 19, 1748 when he 30 years old. Historians place Catherine’s birth between 1713 and 1733, making her somewhere between being five years his senior and 15 years his junior. They had nine children together before she died in 1772.

Thomas Chippendale was not only an artisan, but he was also a marketing genius, although he may not have realized it at the time. At great risk to his livelihood, in 1754, he published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, which revealed many of his elaborate and intricate designs and gave directions on how to make them. It was a bold move to advertise his talent and creativity, and it worked. Not only was Thomas Chippendale extremely successful—his shop employed up to 50 cabinetmakers at one time - but his designs influenced or were copied by furniture makers around the world. Today, his name is one of the most recognized in the world of furniture.

According to the Chippendale Society: “Research to date has identified over seventy of Chippendale’s clients, their patronage being documented in invoices, payments in account books and entries in bank ledgers. About 600 pieces of furniture can be attributed to his workshop on the basis of documentation or convincing stylistic affinities, substantially more than any of his contemporaries or rivals.”

An illustration of a “State Bed” from Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Makers Director, 1762.

Chippendale bookcases.

Thomas Chippendale, however, was much more than a cabinetmaker. His talent included the total of interior design, from floor and furniture coverings to paint colors for the walls. He was the total package in design décor.

In 1776, Thomas retired from the business, and his son Thomas the Younger took over. He was successful in carrying on the business, and then in 1813, the business was bankrupted after one of his father’s partners drew a very large sum of money out of it. Thomas the Younger was forced to close the doors of the business, but he did continue to work as a cabinetmaker

Thomas Chippendale married his second wife Elizabeth Davis on Aug. 5, 1777. He was about 59 at the time. They had three children, and their third child, Charles, was born on June 18, 1780 -seven months after Thomas died of consumption (tuberculosis) in November 1779.

Thomas Chippendale was buried in St. Martin-in-the Fields Church on the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square in London. My wife and I have visited St. Martin and had lunch there in the cafeteria below the main level. It is appropriately titled, “Café in the Crypt,” because people were buried there. (It serves a wonderful bread-and-butter pudding; you will get a kick out of reading the daily menu at www.smitf.org; click on “sample menu.”) While sitting at a table and enjoying a meal, you can look down and read the names of the deceased on the square, flat, gravestones that form the floor—a novel experience, to say the least. But lest you be too repulsed by thought of eating with the dead, all human remains were removed from the crypt in 1937.

Today, the Chippendale name is known the world over, and Thomas Chippendale is memorialized by statues near Otley and outside the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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