The Yorkshire craftsman who tried to be part of the furniture

Curator Simon McCormack with the Library Desk by Thomas Chippendale at Nostell Priory. PIC: Simon Hulme
Curator Simon McCormack with the Library Desk by Thomas Chippendale at Nostell Priory. PIC: Simon Hulme
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They called him the Shakespeare of Furniture, yet Thomas Chippendale was not averse to cutting corners – nor of tearing his society clients off a strip.

An intriguing archive of correspondence, not seen in public before, reveals that Chippendale was threatened with ruination when he chased the landowner Sir Rowland Winn for payment – and that behind the exquisitely carved cabinet legs he produced for Winn at Nostell Priory near Wakefield, lay bare, unfinished wood.

The documents went on display yesterday as part of an exhibition at the Priory, one of several in the region marking the 300th anniversary of the Yorkshire craftsman.

Chippendale created not only furniture but also interior designs for Winn, which have been recreated in a series of themed rooms through which visitors are invited to walk, as if in an 18th century Ikea.

“In a way it’s a posh version of Ikea,” said Simon McCormack, the curator at the Priory. “Of course, these pieces were hand crafted, not mass produced.”

But Chippendale’s attention to detail did not always extend beyond where the eye could see.

“Sometimes corners were quite literally cut,” Mr McCormack said. “Some of the legs are beautifully carved at the front but the insides are unfinished. You can’t see unless you crawl on the floor. But a lot of this stuff was just for show.”

Not all of Chippendale’s finishes were solid, Mr McCormack added. The marble-like interiors of his desk drawers were actually a wallpaper veneer.

His commissions for the Priory came at a time when wealthy families such as the Winns were experimenting with themed interiors similar to those of today.

“The wallpaper would be the same style as the bed and the table, and you’d get some chairs made up in the same style again,” Mr McCormack said.

“Your ceramics and your kettle would also be the same style. It’s like Ikea – you pick a certain range or look, and you get all the gubbins that match.”

The Otley-born Chippendale supplied Winn with more than 100 items of furniture, wallpaper and textiles, from a simple chopping block to complete rooms in the latest Chinese fashions – but the paperwork reveals that both the craftsman and his client were going through financial crises.

“Most of his clients were bad at paying but Winn was particularly bad, probably because he was financially overstretched. He sent cheques that bounced,” Mr McCormack said.

“Chippendale was having to push him for payment, and gentlemen didn’t normally have to pay for things that quickly.

“He had over-promised and under-delivered, and in the letters, Winn threatens to ruin his reputation and Chippendale has to apologise.

“It really opens up a window on an 18th century world.”

Winn used the language of a petulant 21st century teenager on Facebook to threaten Chippendale

“If you do not rate me as your friend I will regard you as my enemy,” he wrote.

“Chippendale tried to up his profession to the same level as an architect, but he was still treated really as a tradesman,” Mr McCormack said. “It wasn’t until Victorian times that craftsmen became respected.

“Chippendale’s language in his letters is quite awkward – he’s just a local boy. He doesn’t have that relationship.

“It’s like a soap opera, really.”

The exhibition at Nostell Priory runs until November 4.