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GEORGE HEPPLEWHITE (d. 1786)

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Originally appearing in Volume V13, Page 306 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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GEORGE HEPPLEWHITE (d. 1786), one of the most famous English cabinet-makers of the 18th century. There is practically no biographical material relating to Hepplewhite. The only facts that are known with certainty are that he was apprenticed to Gillow at Lancaster, that he carried on business in the parish of Saint Giles, Cripplegate, and that administration of his estate was granted to his widow Alice on the 27th of June 1786. The administrator's accounts, which were filed in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury a year later, indicate that his property was of considerable value. After his death the business was continued by his widow under the style of A. Hepplewhite & Co. Our only approximate means of identifying his work are The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, which was first published in 1788, two years after his death, and ten designs in The Cabinet-maker's London Book of Prices (1788), issued by the London Society of Cabinet-Makers. It is, however, exceedingly difficult to earmark any given piece of furniture as being the actual work or design of Hepplewhite, since it is generally recognized that to a very large extent the name represents rather a fashion than a man. Lightness, delicacy and grace are the distinguishing characteristics of Hepplewhite work. The massiveness of Chippendale had given place to conceptions that, especially in regard to chairs—which had become smaller as hoops went out of fashion—depended for their effect more upon inlay than upon carving. In one respect at least the Hepplewhite style was akin to that of Chippendale—in both cases the utmost ingenuity was lavished upon the chair, and if Hepplewhite was not the originator he appears to have been the most constant and successful user of the shield back. This elegant form was employed by the school in a great variety of designs, and nearly always in a way artistically satisfying. Where Chippendale, his contemporaries and his immediate successors had used the cabriole and the square leg with a good deal of carving, the Hepplewhite manner preferred a slighter leg, plain, fluted or reede'l, tapering to a spade foot which often became the " spider leg " that characterized much of the late 18th-century furniture; this form of leg was indeed not confined to chairs but was used also for tables and sideboards. Of the dainty drawing-room grace of the style there can be no question. The great majority of modern chairs are of Hepplewhite inspiration, while he, or those who worked with him, appears to have a clear claim to have originated, or at all events popularized, the winged easy-chair, in which the sides are continued to the same height as the back. This is probably the most comfortable type of chair that has ever been made. The backs of Hepplewhite chairs were often adorned with galleries and festoons of wheat-ears or pointed fern leaves, and not infrequently with the prince of Wales's feathers in some more or less decorative form. The frequency with which this badge was used has led to the suggestion either that A. Hepplewhite & Co. were employed by George IV. when prince of Wales, or that the feathers were used as a political emblem. The former suggestion is obviously the more feasible, but there is little doubt that the feathers were used by other makers working in the same style. It has been objected as an artistic flaw in Hepplewhite's chairs that they have the appearance of fragility. They are, however, constructionally sound as a rule. The painted and japanned work has been criticized on safer grounds. This delicate type of furniture, often made of satinwood, and painted with wreaths and festoons, with amorini and musical instruments or floral motives, is the most elegant and pleasing that can be imagined. It has, however, no elements of decorative permanence. With comparatively little use the paintings wear off and have to be renewed. A piece of untouched painted satin-wood is almost unknown, and one of the essential charms of old furniture as of all other antiques is that it should retain the patina of time. A large proportion of Hepplewhite furniture is inlaid with the exotic woods which had come into high favour by the third quarter of the 18th century. While the decorative use upon furniture of so evanescent a medium as paint is always open to criticism, any form of marquetry is obviously legitimate, and, if inlaid furniture be less ravishing to the eye, its beauty is but enhanced by time. It was not in chairs alone that the Hepplewhite manner excelled. It acquired, for instance, a speciality of seals for the tall, narrow Georgian sash windows, which in the Hepplewhite period had almost entirely superseded the more picturesque forms of an earlier time. These window-seats had ends rolling over outwards, and no backs, and despite their skimpiness their elegant simplicity is decidedly pleasing. Elegance, in fact, was the note of a style which on the whole was more distinctly English than that which preceded or immediately followed it. The smaller Hepplewhite pieces are much prized by collectors. Among these may be included urn-shaped knife-boxes in mahogany and satinwood, charming in form and decorative in the extreme; inlaid tea-caddies, varying greatly in shape and material, but always appropriate and coquet; delicate little fire-screens with shaped poles; painted work-tables, and inlaid stands. Hepplewhite's bedsteads with carved and fluted pillars were very handsome and attractive. The evolution of the dining-room sideboard made rapid progress towards the end of the 18th century, but neither Hepplewhite nor those who worked in his style did much to advance it. Indeed they somewhat retarded its development by causing it to revert to little more than that side-table which had been its original form. It was, however, a very delightful table with its undulating front, its many elegant spade-footed legs and its delicate carving. If we were dealing with a less elusive personality it would be just to say that Hepplewhite's work varies from the extreme of elegance and the most delicious simplicity to an unimaginative commonplace, and sometimes to actual ugliness. As it is, this summary may well be applied to the style as a whole —a style which was assuredly not the creation of any one man, but owed much alike of excellence and of defect to a school of cabinet-makers who were under the influence of conflicting tastes and changing ideals. At its best the taste was so fine and so full of distinction, so simple, modest and sufficient, that it amounted tc genius. On its lower planes it was clearly influenced by commercialism and the desire to make what tasteless people preferred. Yet this is no more than to say that the Hepplewhite style succumbed sometimes, perhaps very often, to the eternal enemy of all art—the uninspired banality of the average man. (J. P.-B.)
End of Article: GEORGE HEPPLEWHITE (d. 1786)
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