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Happy 300th Birthday, Mr Chippendale!

Blog | By William Cook | Jun 13, 2018

In the Blue Drawing Room at Dumfries House, a Palladian mansion near Kilmarnock, there’s a beautiful rosewood bookcase that encapsulates the enduring appeal of Thomas Chippendale.

In 1759, when Chippendale made it, it sold for £47 and five shillings. In 2007, Christie’s valued it at £4 million. One collector bid £12 million. Thankfully, that sale fell through and so this bookcase is still here, in the house that it was made for. And this year is the 300th birthday of the man who made it. 

Thomas Chippendale was born in 1718 in Otley, a market town in Yorkshire. This year, some of the country houses he furnished are teaming up to celebrate his tercentenary. I recently visited two of them, Harewood House and Nostell, both in Yorkshire. While I was there, I met up with some members of the Chippendale Society. 

‘You should visit Dumfries and Paxton,’ they said. ‘Their collections are superb.’ Both houses were well off the tourist trail, they told me, and both locations were incredible – hidden in the Scottish Lowlands, amid gorgeous scenery. The Lowlands is one of my favourite spots. I’m always keen for an excuse to go there. In the bleak midwinter, in a howling gale, I set off for Dumfries. My wife thought I must be mad.

Unlike a lot of enthusiasts, I came to Chippendale fairly late. I suppose you could say he crept up on me. I’ve always been a sucker for stately homes, and once you’ve visited a few of them, you can’t help noticing his furniture. It’s so delicate and graceful, it makes everything else look ungainly. Chippendale’s life story also intrigued me. He came from a humble family with no connections, yet he furnished some of the grandest houses in the land.

Dumfries House is in Ayrshire, 35 miles south of Glasgow. Designed by Robert Adam, the house is hidden in dense woodland. When you first catch sight of it, through the trees, it takes your breath away. The 5th Earl of Dumfries began building the house in 1754. His first wife then died childless; so he turned his new home into a honey-trap. He wanted to furnish it in the most fashionable style, to attract a fashionable bride, and the most fashionable furniture maker was a Mr Chippendale of Covent Garden. The Earl spent £7,000 on the house and £700 on furniture. Three centuries later, it remains one of the best Chippendale collections in the world.

How Chippendale came to be so well-connected is a mystery. His father was a joiner. Otley was a provincial backwater. Yet by the time he’d turned thirty, he was running a smart workshop on St Martin’s Lane, patronised by Britain’s poshest families. It seems his Scottish business partner, James Rannie, may well have given him his entrée into high society. A lot of Chippendale’s clients were Scots.

The furniture Chippendale made for Dumfries was characteristic of his early style – ornate, flamboyant, almost effeminate – and it seemed to do the trick. In 1762, the Earl remarried, but he didn’t live happily ever after, and nor did his blushing bride. A male guest was sent packing after being caught ‘behind the curtain’ with the Countess.

The Earl died in 1768, still without an heir. The estate passed into an even grander family, to the Marquesses of Bute, and since Dumfries was merely one of their smaller houses, they left it well alone. Rather than being renovated and ruined by those vulgar Victorians, its Adam interiors and Chippendale furniture remained intact.

In 2007, this rare blend of Georgian décor and architecture was almost lost for ever, when the 7th Marquess, the former Formula One racing driver and Le Mans 24 Hours winner Johnny Dumfries, put the house and its contents up for sale. The Chippendale collection was all ready to be auctioned off (Christie’s had already printed the catalogue) when Prince Charles stepped in and saved Dumfries for the nation. Today, Dumfries House employs hundreds of local people, and the Prince plays an active role. It’s been a great boost for the area, still recovering from the closure of its mills and mines.

Charlotte Rostek, curator emeritus at Dumfries, showed me round. ‘What makes Chippendale so special?’ I asked.

‘It’s the energy more than anything,’ she said. ‘It’s the flow of it – it’s so fluent and confident.’ She showed me a huge range of treasures, all built for Dumfries, from a marvellous mahogany writing desk to a magnificent four-poster bed. 

I spent the night on the estate, in an old workman’s cottage that’s now a cosy holiday apartment. In the morning, I ate a delicious breakfast up at the lodge. Everything on the menu came from local suppliers or from the walled garden on the estate – derelict for many years, now restored. I left Dumfries with a different impression of Prince Charles.

By lunchtime, I was in Berwickshire, on the other side of the Lowlands. I’d come to visit Paxton House (pictured, above, the principal bedroom), a peerless example of Chippendale’s mature style. A pragmatist, he primarily aimed to please his customers. As fashions shifted from rococo to classical, his furniture became more spare. Paxton is less lavish than Dumfries, but the collection is even more comprehensive. Dumfries has 56 pieces by Chippendale, Paxton has 119.

Paxton was built by John and James Adam (Robert’s elder and younger brothers) and has the same understated elegance. Like Dumfries, it was built to impress a prospective bride, yet the man who built it, Patrick Home, died childless. 

The next owner, Ninian Home, made a fortune in Grenada and furnished Paxton in the latest style, before being killed in 1795 by rebellious slaves. The house passed through various relatives until 1988, when the last owner, John Home Robertson, a Labour MP, gave it to the nation. Today it doubles as an art gallery, with fine portraits of the family by Raeburn, alongside Scottish Colourists on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland.

Like Dumfries, Paxton is remarkable for the originality of its décor. Almost all the furniture was bought by the      original owners, and in many instances made for them. And whereas the Butes were far too grand to bother modernising Dumfries, the Homes weren’t quite grand enough to modernise Paxton. The result is a stately home that remains much as Chippendale would have seen it. Wandering around it feels like stepping back in time. But the best thing is the location. The house is on a steep bank above the River Tweed, the ancient border with England. I walked along the leafy riverbank, not a soul in sight, the wind singing softly in the trees. 

That evening, John’s sister Georgina Home Robertson drove me across the splendid chain bridge that straddles this great divide, for dinner in England with some of her friends who are campaigning to save this historic landmark.

Georgina grew up at Paxton and you can tell that she still misses it, but she lives nearby, in a pretty cottage in the grounds. I spent the night there, and in the morning, after another delicious breakfast, even better than the day before, she drove me into Berwick to catch my train. 

A few hours later, I was back in London, and the Lowlands seemed a world away. 

‘The Paxton Style: Neat & Substantially Good’, Paxton House, Berwick-upon-Tweed; 5th June-28th August

‘Chippendale: the Man and the Brand’, Nostell, West Yorkshire; 2nd May- 28th October

‘Thomas Chippendale – Designer, Maker, Decorator’, Harewood House, West Yorkshire; until 30th September

Dumfries House, Ayrshire, is holding regular Chippendale events from March until October