The influence of George Hepplewhite on furniture design is probably the most interesting story of the big three furniture makers of the 18th century, which also include Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Chippendale.
There is very little known about George Hepplewhite. He apprenticed in Lancaster and later moved to London. In London he opened up a shop, but interestingly there are no known pieces that exist today that have come out of his shop.
His name is given instead to a style of furniture that was heavily influenced by a publication that was produced under his name in 1788. Hepplewhite died in 1786 and the book The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, also known simply as The Guide, was published by his widow Alice posthumously. The 300 designs in the book are all attributed to George Hepplewhite, but there is some speculation that they were actually Alice's designs.
In the late 1700s it was common practice for women writers to publish under male names. In addition it is very curious that Alice continued her husband's company under the name “A. Hepplewhite and Co.” rather than the name “G. Hepplewhite and Co.” There is some speculation that George Hepplewhite may have been Alice's pen name, or The Guide may indeed have been the works of her late husband.
Whatever the origins of the designs published in The Guide, it was and continues to be a tremendously influential book on the design of furniture. In addition to the original publication in 1788 there were two more editions published; one in 1789 and one in 1790.
When comparing Hepplewhite stylings with Chippendale, the most significant contrast is in its consistency. While Chippendale produced and designed a large variety of styles, including Rococo, Gothic, Chinese, and Neo-Classical; Hepplewhite's designs have a very easily identifiable style of simple curved lines and with chairs there are distinctively shaped backs. These shapes include a shield back, hooped back, oval back, and heart back.
Hepplewhite was heavily influenced by Robert Adam who held the position of Architect of the King’s Works from 1761 to 1769. Adam's furniture brought back the simple lines of Roman and Greek styles, which began the Neo-Classical movement. These new designs changed the furniture styles of the aristocratic class, but it wasn't until Hepplewhite's Guide was published that the changes were brought to the middle class. After the elaborate designs of Chippendale, there seemed to be a desire for a more clean lined approach to furniture design, and The Guide met that need very well.
The book Adam & Hepplewhite Furniture by Clifford Musgrave says this “The neo-classical style was now to pass from the aristocratic into the democratic sphere with the publication of the designs of George Hepplewhite in his Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788, which demonstrated, for all to see, that the style of Robert Adam could be adapted for general consumption.”
It is clear when you look at his designs that they not only influenced the furniture suppliers that served the middle class of England, but also the designs of American furniture. You can see echoes of the Hepplewhite aesthetic in both American Shaker furniture and Craftsmen furniture - particularly when looking at Hepplewhite tables and desks.
Although Hepplewhite designed many styles of furniture, chairs are what he is best known for. He designed an abundance of chair backs, all of which display an understated elegance. In his chairs, as in the rest of his furniture, he displayed great restraint in carving techniques. This restraint is particularly evident when comparing his designs to the exuberant Thomas Chippendale.
The legs on his chairs are quite beautiful. They are typically tapered and square, with the back legs often curving. The shield style backs are probably the most popular of his back styles and showcase beautiful curving lines.
Hepplewhite desks continue with the same style elements. You will see the tapered, elegant, square legs, but in the desks the curve, if present, is not typically in the legs, but in the shape of the top.
One of the other prominent hallmarks of this style of furniture are the inlays. Like the rest of the Hepplewhite style they are subtle, but striking.
The style that George Hepplewhite helped to influence was popular in England between 1775 and 1800, with many of his stylistic elements still seen in furniture design today.
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