News. Chippendale and Dumfries House

19th of March, 2018

In early 1759, the 5th Earl of Dumfries travelled to London to do some shopping. His expedition took him to St Martin’s Lane, where Thomas Chippendale had opened a fine new furniture showroom. And like most shopping trips, it ended up being rather more expensive than he had anticipated.

The Earl was in London to find pieces to furnish Dumfries House, the Robert Adam-designed Palladian mansion he had commissioned on his retirement from the armed services. The Earl had lost his first wife, Lady Anne Gordon, early into the build and was left heirless, so the House evolved from home to honey trap. A lavish display of wealth was needed to attract a fertile bride, but as the build was completed after five years at a cost of 7,979 pounds, 11 shillings and 2 pence (around £1.2 million in today’s money), a more reasonable spend on the interiors was planned.

“He was determined to stick to his budget”, says James Lomax, Honorary Curator of the Chippendale Society, “and planned to buy just one elbow chair, for instance, then have cheaper copies made in Edinburgh. But he was so smitten by the craftsman’s work that he ended up buying 14 elbow chairs at the full London price.” He didn’t stop there. In May that year, 39 crates were delivered to Dumfries House; their contents gave the house what is now one of the largest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.

There is nothing to suggest that the Earl and cabinet-maker became friends and, to many, their correspondence might seem as dry as a pile of woodchips. But to furniture enthusiasts, the detailed invoices from Chippendale and his business partner, James Rannie – full of descriptive phrases such as “richly carv’d & gilt in burnish’d gold” (sic) – are nothing less than a treasure trove.

Chippendale never signed or labelled his furniture and it was widely copied, due in part to his decision to publish his design catalogue, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. “Chippendale’s work is very difficult to authenticate, this is why it’s so great to have a document telling you that a particular piece was in a consignment that came up here on a ship called the Diligence,” explains Alex MacDonald, Head Guide at Dumfries House. “We have an unbroken chain all the way back to the workshop.”

The collection is all the more important because it dates from the Rococo phase of Chippendale’s career, before he embraced Neo-Classicism. “This period is poorly represented,” says the Chippendale Society’s Chairman, Adam Bowett. “Most of his surviving work is from the 1760s and 1770s, so Dumfries House is key to understanding his early period.” For James Lomax, the girandole candle sconces in the Pink Dining Room, with their asymmetric designs and chinoiserie, are “the essence of Rococo”.

Words: Anthony Gardener