How to spot whether it’s a genuine Thomas Chippendale

How does an expert determine if a piece was made by Thomas Chippendale Senior, Britain’s greatest furniture-maker? Christie’s furniture specialists reveal some of the telltale innovations, designs and techniques

Chippendale is a name that is synonymous with the greatest works of art created out of timber by a man in England,’ says Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s UK. ‘We really know him now because of his celebrated book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, through which he disbursed his ideas to regional cabinetmakers, to patrons, and also internationally.’

Robert Copley, International Head of Furniture at Christie’s in London, elaborates: ‘I suppose what we love about Chippendale is the incredible, fanciful furniture that he designed: the Chinoiserie cabinets that he’s known for, but also the evolution from the Rococo to the Neoclassical. He was obviously an extremely good draughtsman and designer, and his enduring appeal is not only the great designs, but also their beautiful execution.’

To mark the 300th anniversary of Chippendale’s birth, the breadth of his achievements are being celebrated throughout the United Kingdom, not least at Harewood House. In London, a preview of our sale, Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years, is on display at our King Street saleroom from 30 June to 5 July. 

‘Chippendale was incredibly bold in embracing new styles and new techniques, influenced often from France and the Continent,’ says Rock. Below, we offer a guide to some of the hallmarks of construction that put Chippendale’s pieces of furniture in a class of their own.

  • 1
  • His timber has space to ‘breathe’

Chippendale had a superb understanding of timber and its qualities. On relatively plain mahogany pieces, for instance, he would use cross-grain rather than long-grain timber on a simple moulding to add a refinement, where others would not.

A George III mahogany breakfront bookcase, by Thomas Chippendale, 1764. 109½  in (278  cm) high; 133¾  in (340  cm) wide; 23  in (58.5  cm) deep. Sold for £2,057,250 on 18 June 2008  at Christie’s in London

A George III mahogany breakfront bookcase, by Thomas Chippendale, 1764. 109½ in (278 cm) high; 133¾ in (340 cm) wide; 23 in (58.5 cm) deep. Sold for £2,057,250 on 18 June 2008 at Christie’s in London

The floating panels in a door had sufficient room to shrink over time without splitting, which means that much of his work remains in superb condition to this day.

  • 2
  • Mirrors have a built-in element of flexibility

When crafting mirrors, Chippendale often applied material between the very expensive plates and the backboard, creating a cushion that allowed for some flexibility.

By Thomas Chippendale, 1759. The savonnerie panel attributed to Thomas Moore, 1759. A magnificent late George II giltwood over-mantel mirror. Sold for £1,500,000 in a Christie’s private treaty sale in June 2007

By Thomas Chippendale, 1759. The savonnerie panel attributed to Thomas Moore, 1759. A magnificent late George II giltwood over-mantel mirror. Sold for £1,500,000 in a Christie’s private treaty sale in June 2007

On the mirrors themselves, peripheral ornaments would be dovetailed into the frame, rather than just glued.

  • 3
  • Carefully concealed screw-holes reveal how chairs were transported

Chair designs by Thomas Chippendale, illustrated in The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, engraved by Isaac Taylor 1762. Credit Museum of Fine Art, Boston Massachusetts, USA  Gift of Maxim Karolik  Bridgeman Images

Chair designs by Thomas Chippendale, illustrated in The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, engraved by Isaac Taylor 1762. Credit: Museum of Fine Art, Boston Massachusetts, USA / Gift of Maxim Karolik / Bridgeman Images

Chippendale chairs often feature ‘cramp cuts’ on the inside of the seat rail, which allowed a cramp to be used to tighten the rail and the leg while glueing. 

Chairs from the Music Room at Harewood House, which was the largest commission of Thomas Chippendale’s career. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

Chairs from the Music Room at Harewood House, which was the largest commission of Thomas Chippendale’s career. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

  • 4
  • The positioning of arm supports can be a giveaway

Another area to look for clues is in the arm supports. These always join the seat rail rather than the top of the leg. Where an oval back was used on a chair, one usually finds an exposed upright strut.

  • 5
  • Cabinet drawers were lined with different woods, depending on use

There are also some telltale signs in Chippendale's cabinet work. These include the use of short-grain kickers (which prevent a drawer from tipping downward when extended), which wear less than long-grain kickers would. His drawers were made with fine dovetails and lined with mahogany where extra strength was required, with cedar when they were to be used for storing clothes, or with oak on more functional pieces.

A green and gold jappaned (painted) clothes press designed by Thomas Chippendale Senior in the Chinese style, circa 1769-1770. This piece is part of a suite of furniture made to accompany the Chinese wallpaper now hanging in the East Bedroom at Harewood House. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

A green and gold jappaned (painted) clothes press designed by Thomas Chippendale Senior in the Chinese style, circa 1769-1770. This piece is part of a suite of furniture made to accompany the Chinese wallpaper now hanging in the East Bedroom at Harewood House. © Harewood House Trust. Photograph by Paul Barker

If a cheaper soft wood was used on the slides of a press, Chippendale would often disguise its use through the application of marbled paper. Drawer stops will have cut corners at the back, and a red wash was often applied to disguise the use of pine, as well as to prevent worm infestation.

  • 6
  • He often used ‘stacked blocks’ for extra strength

An illustration from The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 1754. Credit British Library, London, UK  (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved  Bridgeman Images

An illustration from The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 1754. Credit: British Library, London, UK / (c) British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Certain workshop practices seem to have been favoured by Chippendale. For example, he employed a technique whereby the bracket feet of chests or other case furniture were supported by laminated or ‘stacked’ blocks, glued together and then glued behind the brackets. This gave the foot much greater strength and resilience than the more usual technique.

  • 7
  • His pedestal desks have a unique system for ‘self-levelling’

A George III mahogany library desk, attributed to Thomas Chippendale, circa 1760. 32  in (81.5  cm) high, 60½  in (153.5  cm) wide; 38¼  in (97  cm) deep. Sold for $168,750 on 18 October 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A George III mahogany library desk, attributed to Thomas Chippendale, circa 1760. 32 in (81.5 cm) high, 60½ in (153.5 cm) wide; 38¼ in (97 cm) deep. Sold for $168,750 on 18 October 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Chippendale’s pedestal desks feature an apparently unique system of locating just two castors centrally beneath each pedestal. This takes into account uneven wood or stone floors that would have been prevalent in the 18th century, so that when the desk is assembled it offers self-levelling stability and ease of movement — more so than if the pedestals were fitted with four (or no) castors.

  • 8
  • He tended to favour a distinctive S-shaped keyhole

A George III mahogany bureau-cabinet, attributed to Thomas Chippendale . 94  in (239  cm) high; 47¾  in (121.5  cm) wide; 24¾  in (63  cm) deep. Sold for £226,650 on 4 July 2002  at Christie’s in London

A George III mahogany bureau-cabinet, attributed to Thomas Chippendale . 94 in (239 cm) high; 47¾ in (121.5 cm) wide; 24¾ in (63 cm) deep. Sold for £226,650 on 4 July 2002 at Christie’s in London

Chippendale often used a particular lock that featured a distinctive S-pattern keyhole — indeed he invoiced the Countess of Shelburne in 1768 for a commode table fitted with ‘very good spring & tumbler locks & S-bitted Keys’. Furniture at Nostell Priory and from David Garrick’s London villa, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire and Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire all feature these locks, which were supplied by the Gascoigne family of St. James, London.

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