George Hepplewhite and His Widow Alice
By Hannah Crouthamel on Jul 21 in Furniture Designers
Had it not been for Alice Hepplewhite, the widow of George, it is doubtful that anyone would be aware of this 18th century English cabinetmaker. After George’s death in 1786, Alice complied a catalog of the taste of the era The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide; or Repository of Designs for every Article of Household Furniture in the Newest and Most Approved Taste. It was first published in 1788, re-issued with minor changes in 1789 and “improved” and republished in 1794. It not only catalogued tastes, but guided them down the road of more delicate, inlaid furniture and accessories.
Self-proclaimed arbiter of style and taste
The full title of The Guide tells us quite a bit. Alice reinforces the thrust of the title in her preface, where she makes no claim for originality of design. She catalogs the tastes of the last quarter of the 18th century, and by what she chooses to include she creates the ‘Hepplewhite style’. She used designs from other cabinetmakers of the period, as well as sketches, drawings and possibly even models of her husband’s furniture. Many of the forms which she chooses come to be known as ‘Hepplewhite,’ even though it is highly likely that someone else created the design. Rightly or wrongly the Hepplewhite label has stuck.
As with Chippendale’s Director, this catalog had a far-reaching influence on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, cabinetmakers did not slavishly follow The Guide, but did use it for inspiration. For example, they would regularly substitute inlays that were more relevant to the American experience (Eagle and Stars instead of Britannia and Lion) or use timber that was more easily attainable and locally sourced for contrasting inlays. However, the inspiration of The Guide is evident in the move from more heavily carved Chippendale furniture to the more feminine Hepplewhite style.
The Hepplewhite Style
Hepplewhite as a design structure, covers a lot of territory, but the basic keys are lightness, delicacy, inlays and curves. It is sometimes difficult to determine if a particular piece is Hepplewhite. There are, however, some generalizations which can be made. Generalizations are just that; there are exceptions to every one. Nevertheless they do serve a purpose.
Hepplewhite chairs are defined by the shape of the chair back. There are several different shapes in this lexicon. The shield back is the most important design innovation to the chair form, but an adaptation of Adam’s classical oval back also appears in some of Hepplewhite’s designs. These two backs do not connect with the seat rail, but are attached to an upward extension of the rear legs. This makes for an elegant free floating shape if viewed against a wall. He also used the hoop back shape with its curved top, and straight sides which do connect to the seat rail. Most often these chairs have square tapered legs, sometimes ending in a spade foot. However, a shaped delicate turned leg is also found.
Hepplewhite Sideboards and Tables
Hepplewhite sideboards have square tapered legs. They do not have turned legs; the carcass shape, often serpentine, ends in a concave curve (not convex), some boards are straight fronted, others are bowfronted but they all usually have inlay. Often stringing is inlaid to outline drawers and legs. From the more sophisticated regions of England and America, sideboards can have quite elaborate inlays to the top and front surfaces, sometimes, they are classically inspired; often, flowers, vines, leaves, rosettes, shells and fans are utilized. The demilune (half round) or bowfront shapes were also popularized in Hepplewhite’s card and game tables.
Hepplewhite Chests and Other Case Pieces
Hepplewhite case pieces have a graceful shaped base, many with splay tapered feet (often referred to as a French foot, or a French bracket base) that lend more femininity to the line of the chest. Again, stringing and intricate inlays are a hallmark of the best of these chests. Hepplewhite popularized bowfronted chests, serpentine chests with scalloped shaped skirts and splay feet, as well as straight fronted case pieces, all embellished with inlays or at least stringing. As with Chippendale, the amount of detailing was generally determined by the budget or requirements of the purchaser, as well as the sophistication of the cabinetmaker who was creating the item ordered.
Hepplewhite mirrors are sometimes oval, sometimes rectangular,but usually bedecked with delicate tracery in gesso or carved wood; classical urns often surmount the basic mirror.
In Chippendale’s Director the mirrors are much more heavily carved; larger, bolder detailing surrounds the mirror; Hepplewhite often has a fairly plain molding to the immediate border of the mirror glass and then a delicate tracery of leaves, urns, painted ovals with cupids, vines or ribbons which emanate out or surmount the basic frame. (My husband fondly calls these ‘the fiddly bits’ because packing one of these elaborate and delicate mirrors is always challenging.)
The Hepplewhite style was popular in the last 20 years of the 18th century in England and her colonies. Curves, delicacy and inlays are the Hepplewhite hallmarks. If Chippendale could be called the Beethoven of 18th century design, then Hepplewhite is the Mozart.