THE GOLDEN AGE of English cabinetmaking and furniture design was the period from 1714 to 1830--generally called the Georgian period, after the four English kings who reigned during those years. However, it is really more important to know whether a piece was designed by Hepplewhite or Sheraton or Chippendale than whether it was made during the reign of, say, George III. Matters were far different in France, where furniture styles were named after reigning monarchs: Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI. If nothing else, this shows that wealth and taste were more the province of the British upper classes than of British royalty. Britain had its own rising class of minor nobility and wealthy merchants who determined trends in the decorative arts, and the English kings had little interest in such things. The richness of the period, both in England and in France, is extraordinary.
Of all the 18th-Century English designers and cabinetmakers, the one whose name is most familiar today is Thomas Chippendale. Born in Yorkshire in 1718, he was the son of a joiner. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmakers' firm in London. Within a decade, he had his own shop, and it soon turned into one of the largest furniture-making businesses in that country. His work was renowned for its exquisitely carved decoration, cabriole legs and elaborate chair backs. He was famous for the exotic Oriental designs and lacquerwork that came to be called Chinese Chippendale.
In 1754, he published a book, "The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director." The first edition had 16 plates, along with many drawings of Chippendale's own designs for chairs and settees and for such imposing furniture as commodes, dressing tables, bookcases, library tables and breakfronts. His designs were by no means original, but the book served to bring his name before a wide public, and he became a celebrity.
It is, however, misleading to think of Chippendale as the greatest of all 18th-Century English cabinetmakers and furniture designers. His reputation was chiefly founded on one popular book, but the designs in it were for the most part derivative, and he personally was no more than an average craftsman. But he was a fine publicist and a man of great business acumen, the head of a large and successful firm known throughout the British Isles.
Many of the Chippendale chairs sold at auction these days are 19th-Century copies, and others are handsome (and expensive) examples made in the American Colonies, before and after 1776. Typical 18th-Century English Chippendale pieces are often found for good prices. In 1988, for example, you might have acquired eight Chippendale mahogany dining chairs with pierced ladder backs for $10,000; or 12 carved mahogany armchairs for $15,400. Per chair, prices are not excessive.
Look for Chippendale chairs at Morey Palmer Associates, Museum Antiques in Los Angeles; Richard Gould Antiques in Santa Monica; Richard Yeakel in Laguna Beach; G.R. Durenberger in San Juan Capistrano, and Jay's Antiques in Pasadena. Reproductions can be found at Melrose House, Baker Knapp & Tubbs, Panache, Charles Pollock Reproductions Inc., all in Los Angeles.