The “Hepplewhite Chair”, known as the “Shield-Back” is a chair of timeless design. A classic design that has graced interiors since its inception in the 18th century, the “Hepplewhite” chair is a sophisticated and streamlined style that characteristically displays an expansive shield for the back. Seats have rounded fronts and chair backs are shaped like ovals, “Hooped Back”, heart-backs or shields. Created by prominent cabinetmaker and furniture dealer in England, George Hepplewhite (1727-1786 ?), the “Hepplewhite” chair is a distinctive style of light, elegant furniture that is said to have been highly fashionable between 1775-1800 (Other sources list 1780-1810). Interesting, it was not until years after George Hepplewhite’s death that his designs started to achieve recognition. Hepplewhite is also credited for popularizing the sideboard and the short chest of drawers, both new forms of furniture in his time. However, chairs are what “Hepplewhite” is best known for.
Hepplewhite was included with his contemporaries of the time, such as Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton, as one of the three substantial furniture makers of the 18th century. Both Chippendale and Sheraton created many varieties of stylish pieces. Hepplewhite, however, produced designs that were light, slender and more curvilinear in shape. Said to have borrowed freely from the designs of France and England, he certainly provided a graceful, delicate appearance when compared to the earlier elaborate “Queen Anne” and Chippendale styles. Hepplewhite’s design was easily identifiable with simple curved lines and distinctive shaped back. Rather than straight legs, the Hepplewhite-style had tapered and square legs and feet that are considered simple with a rectangular spade foot or tapered arrow foot. Initially, substantial carvings decorated the distinctive shield-back design. However, later models of the chair would include a prominent hallmark of ornamentation: intricate inlays of patterns and contrasting colors of veneers of various woods, rather than carvings. Common motifs include swags, ribbons, feathers, urns and trees. Mahogany was the typical base of the chair, yet satinwood and maple were also very popular. Other woods utilized included sycamore (common for veneers), tulipwood, birch and rosewood. As craftsmen typically use the local woods available, it is not surprising that the American versions of Hepplewhite’s designs would include Ash and pine. Of note, considered “City Furniture” of distinctive English style, “Hepplewhite” became popular in the American states along the Eastern Seaboard, from New England to the Carolina’s.
The mystery that has surrounded this unique design within the history of furniture is still a mystery that is yet to be solved. Very little is known about the man, Hepplewhite. Established sources list no birth information, yet there is documentation that a “George Hepplewhite” was born in 1727 in Durham, England (although Lancaster is also said to be his birthplace). It is said that Hepplewhite served an apprenticeship in Lancaster, England and then moved to London where he opened a shop. Circumstantial evidence, perhaps. The mystery continues after he died in 1786, when the administration of his estate and his profitable business was granted to his widow, Alice Hepplewhite. The business was carried on by Alice and partners under the name of “A. Hepplewhite & Co”. In 1786, Alice Hepplewhite published a book that included 300 of George Hepplewhite’s designs, entitled “The Cabinet Maker And Upholsterers Guide”. Two more editions would be published in 1789 and 1790. Interestingly, on 128 plates of designs, engraved is “”From drawings by A. Hepplewhite & Co. Cabinet Makers”. This guide was a business book for the trade and is considered the most notable of several similar works published by others around the same period.
The guide influenced cabinet makers and furniture companies for generations, influencing the reproductions of the original designs and variations of the design through the 19th and 20th centuries. His name is in fact given to a style of furniture that was heavily influenced by the guide. Interestingly, the published book lists George Hepplewhite as the author. Yet even the spelling of Hepplewhite’s name is a matter of controversy. In the first edition, the name is published “Heppelwhite” and in later editions, the name appears as “Hepplewhite”. Curious, indeed. The mystery lies in the mere fact that beyond a death certificate offering hard evidence of his existence, it is questioned as to whether “George Hepplewhite” was a real person or just a name for Alice Hepplewhite to publish under, filled with her own designs. Of note, there is criticism toward the uniformity of the designs within the guide, which adds to another theory that the designs were not all done by Hepplewhite, himself. Will we ever know? Was it truly published post-humously? It it said that it was common practice for women writers to publish under male names in the late 1700’s. Was this the case? In addition, it is curious that Alice continued her husband’s company under the name “A. Hepplewhite and Co.” rather than the name “G. Hepplewhite and Co.”. Perhaps the name “George Hepplewhite” was Alice’s pen name? Or, was the “Guide” the work of her late husband himself? Is he a myth? Was she the creative artist and George the talented craftsman? Alas, the mystery continues to go unsolved….
Whatever “Hepplewhite” we owe the design of this chair to, it is believed that the designer was heavily influenced by Robert Adam of England, Architect of The King’s Works from 1761-1769. Adam’s furniture revived the simple lines of Roman and Greek styles, which is said to have begun the Neo-Classical movement. These designs would change the furniture styles of the aristocratic class. However, it was not until Hepplewhite’s “Guide” was published that the middle class was introduced to this style. At a time when a desire arose for a clean lined approach to furniture design, the “Guide” satisfied that need perfectly. In the book “Adam & Hepplewhite’s Furniture”, by Clifford Musgrave, Musgrave writes:
“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 Upholsterers Guide in 1788, which demonstrated for us all to see, that the style of Robert Adam could be adapted for general consumption”.
And of course, we must not forget the “Shield” mirror that resonates with the design and style of this remarkable design…
Indeed, Hepplewhite is not just a name or a style of design, but rather, he (or she) is responsible for fostering the taste and artistic beauty in furniture. Of note, the style of Louis XVI is also thought to have influenced Hepplewhite. Although there may have been other furniture designers working within this style, Hepplewhite is certainly esteemed as the premier designer of this style, which reached its pinnacle in England between 1780 and 1800, the Neo-Classical period. Not only was this individual designing with taste and style, but certainly possessed a knowledge of business skill, like his counterparts. Perhaps a pioneer thought to have been the first of cabinetmakers to break away from the dominance of Chippendale in furniture design, his work had a profound effect on the style of the period that has endured today. Reproductions of this stylish design has continued through the centuries. In fact, British manufacturers began reviving Hepplewhite designs in the 1880’s, producing solid, finely detailed mass-produced reproductions. To acquire one of these today! The Shield-back chair has never gone out of style, but rather is still considered a standard in traditional furniture design. Regardless of the designer, the chair is a remarkable addition to the history of furniture.
Whether this chair adorns your interior in beautiful, striking wood, painted in “Pops” of color or an upholstered variation, the timeless design is sure to be a distinction of style. Classic elegance, indeed.
“To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable, has never been considered a difficult but an honourable task”– George Hepplewhite, Preface, “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Guide”