Why Thomas Chippendale is part of the furniture in Otley

Lawrence Ross with the statue of Thomas Chippendale in Otley
Lawrence Ross with the statue of Thomas Chippendale in Otley
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He was not yet 20 when he dragged his ball and claw feet out of Otley in search of the bright lights of York and then London, but the town of Thomas Chippendale’s birth is not letting the absence of any of his furniture there interfere with its plans to celebrate his 300th anniversary.

Otley, known for its market and for having, reputedly, more pubs than anywhere else its size, has an enduring affection for the cabinet maker who in the 18th century more or less invented English furniture. A statue of him stands behind railings in the town centre and homophones of his name identify half a dozen tea rooms, fish and chip shops and other local businesses.

James Lomax, co-curator of a Thomas Chippendale exhibition at Leeds Museum

James Lomax, co-curator of a Thomas Chippendale exhibition at Leeds Museum

But the nearest examples of his craftwork are outside the civic boundaries, at Farnley Hall and further out at Harewood.

“Getting hold of any is impossible,” said Lawrence Ross of Visit Otley, who is chairing the town’s Celebrating Chippendale committee. “The value is ridiculously high and so is the insurance.”

Nevertheless, Otley has announced plans for a month-long festival of Chippendale’s life, beginning on June 2 with a birthday party in the building that was probably his school.

“We’re saying ‘probably’ because we don’t know much of the detail about his life here,” Mr Ross said. “We do know he was baptised on June 5.”

Ruth Martin, Leeds City Museum's curator of special exhibitions, cleans a 1768 mahogany chair by Thomas Chippendale

Ruth Martin, Leeds City Museum's curator of special exhibitions, cleans a 1768 mahogany chair by Thomas Chippendale

The old school building just off the market square, now occupied by the Stew and Oyster pub, was once Prince Henry’s Grammar, whose masters are believed to have educated the young Chippendale.

Local legend has it that shortly thereafter, as a young apprentice he made the dolls’ house at Nostell Priory, and worked with his father, a joiner, at Farnley Hall on the outskirts of the town. But the details are scant.

For that reason, the Otley celebrations will concentrate on Chippendale’s spirit, rather than his actual work, some of which has just gone on display at Leeds City Museum. A centrepiece will be a celebration of his Christening inside the church at which it took place, with a concert of 18th century music performed by local artists.

There will also be a walking tour of Chippendale-related sites, including that of his birth, now occupied by Browns Art Gallery.

“We’re trying to mix highbrow and lowbrow events to create a celebration that everyone can enjoy,” Mr Ross said.

The latter category will include a Christening cake baked by Patisserie Viennoise ion Westgate, and a Chippend’Ale beer by Dr Paul Briscoe, who runs a micro-brewery on Ash Grove.

It is at Harewood House, a 15-minute drive from Otley, that the largest collection of Chippendale furniture is to be found. The commission from Edwin Lascelles occupied Chippendale’s firm – by then based in London – for 11 years but it may not have turned a profit in his lifetime.

“The poor chap died in poverty,” said Mr Ross. “His benefactors never paid their bills on time – it wasn’t the thing to do and he died being owed something like £4,000.

“That’s why he never got around to writing down his history or having his portrait painted. He never had the money.”

Chippendale’s son, Thomas Jr, carried on the family firm but cash flow remained a problem and in 1813 he was evicted for bankruptcy.

Chippendale’s furniture was distinguished by its Cabriole legs, turning outward at the knee and inward at the ankle, and by its feet, adapted from a Chinese design of a bird’s foot holding an egg.

Prince Charles, who led a campaign to save some of his work at Dumfries House in Ayrshire for the nation, has called the Chippendale name “a byword for excellence in design and manufacture”, from his day to ours.

His commissions from aristocratic clients in Yorkshire included the decoration of rooms at Nostell Priory, Newby Hall, Temple Newsam and Burton Constable Hall, as well as at Harewood and Farnley Hall.

A sculpture of him sits on the facade of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.