Considered one of the “Big Three” English antique furniture designers, George Hepplewhite falls chronologically in between Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton. Like the others of this elite group he is said to have written an influential antique furniture design guide, but unlike his peers there is some doubt as to whether or not he actually wrote his book. His book was entitled The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide.
George Hepplewhite Personal History
There are almost no concrete facts about George Hepplewhite that have survived throughout history. There is no definite record of his birth although it is estimated he was born in 1727. He passed away on June 21, 1786 and there is a certificate of death on file. He was survived by his wife, Alice Hepplewhite who continued his business after his death. Since George Hepplewhite’s furniture design book was not published until 2 years after his death, it is widely believed that it was published by his widow. Because of this fact there is some doubt as to whether or not these designs actually were those of George Hepplewhite or if they were of his widow or someone else entirely. With no surviving furniture that was made by George Hepplewhite or his company, that truth may never be told. Regardless, history has accepted his style and given it his name.
The Shield Back Dining Chair
The most well known design of George Hepplewhite is the shield back dining chair. His original designs based the chair back off shields used by knights in the 13th and 14th centuries. The interior of the shield was decorated with carved wheat sheaf’s, chains of flora, or feathers. He preferred the straight, tapered leg that sometimes ended in a spade foot.
George Hepplewhite incorporated the shield back into other furniture as well. Here is a bench drawing from The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide which incorporates a string of shield backs as the back rest.
Other Furniture Designs
Besides the well-known chairs, George Hepplewhite designed other furniture as well. Among his designs were chest of drawers (which were becoming popular around his time as the popularity of highboys and lowboys declined), drop leaf tables, and sideboards. On these larger case goods, Hepplewhite preferred to use satinwood over other woods. The satinwood would be either painted or intricately inlaid with a wood such as holly. Mahogany was his wood of choice for carvings.