Monday, March 14, 2016

The Luck 'O the Irish

QUESTION: I have two chairs that I’ve been told are Irish Chippendale. Both feature lion mask carvings on the knees of the front legs. Are these lion mask carvings rare on Irish furniture?

ANSWER: Before tackling whether your chairs are rare or not because of their lion mask motifs, let’s first define exactly what “Irish” Chippendale furniture is?

Most people think Thomas Chippendale designed and built his famous furniture. He definitely designed it and built some for wealthy clients, but mostly he’s known for his famous Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, a catalog of furniture patterns which included detailed drawings of all of his furniture design ideas, plus variations. Cabinetmakers all over the world bought the book and created their own versions of his designs based on the materials available in their locale and on the wishes of their wealthier customers.

Although Irish Chippendale is somewhat of a misnomer, the name which attaches to that peculiar style as well as its general contour comes from Thomas Chippendale It was the work of cabinetmakers in Ireland, and of those who made furniture for the Irish market at a time when Chippendale was influencing the furniture produced by his contemporaries. It was, however, apparently formulated to some extent independently, and even earlier than it was possible for the influence of Chippendale to have spread so far afield.

Chippendale based his designs on those of Queen Anne pieces, especially the cabriole leg. Since Ireland was under British rule in the 18th century, it’s possible that some of the wealthier Irish families imported pieces made by Chippendale in England. The evolution of the Irish Chippendale style was a gradual one. It didn’t just happen overnight. Eighteenth-century cabinetmakers all looked to each other for ideas, incorporating many of them into their designs. In addition, their clients often asked for particular features and motifs on the furniture they commissioned. The wealthy traveled and most likely experienced Chippendale’s designs where they visited, creating a demand for a Chippendale-related style in Ireland sooner than the popularity of the English cabinetmaker’s work would otherwise have done.

Whatever may have been the origin of the Irish Chippendale style, whether made in Dublin or in Irish provincial towns, such furniture had a sufficiently characteristic style running through it which gave it an individuality all its own. Some decorative arts historians believe that the Irish Chippendale style had a Dutch influence which shows in the somewhat heavy foliated carving of the rail, chiefly shown on the edge of tabletops.

Irish cabinetmakers captured the "spirit " of Chippendale in their designs, but for the most part they wrongly interpreted it. Also, many of the pieces show the features of the earlier Queen Ann and Jacobean styles. This indicates that many of the Irish cabinetmakers were unfamiliar with the Chippendale style as such and just added the features requested by their clients to their existing furniture designs.

The lion mask, a motif used from antiquity as an emblem of strength, courage, and majesty, is one such feature. The lion mask holding a ring in its mouth for a handle derives from ancient Roman furniture and continues to be popular as doorknocker even today. From the early to mid-18th century, the lion mask enjoyed popularity as a favored motif for furniture ornament, used as an arm rest support or to decorate the knee of a cabriole leg. Occasionally, a lion's paw or pelt appears alongside the mask. Thus the lion mask was a common facet of Irish Chippendale design.

Unlike other examples of furniture made in the Chippendale style, those pieces made in Ireland feature lion masks prominently in their design. Because much of Irish Chippendale furniture dates a bit before Thomas Chippendale published his catalog of furniture patterns, your chairs are most likely slightly older than furniture made in the traditional Chippendale style during the last half of the 18th century and not a rarity as you originally asked.

To learn more about Thomas Chippendale and his style of furniture, read "Chippendale---The Royalty of Antique Furniture" and "Chippendale Changed the Way Furniture Looked."

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