Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary ...... ... Federal style

George Hepplewhite

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Kittinger reproduction
shield back Hepplewhite armchair

Examples are from Buffalo, NY, unless otherwise noted


Chippendale Styles in England

"The eighteenth century included the five great styles of English furniture, that is, the Queen Anne, the Chippendale, the Adam, the Hepplewhite and the Sheraton. It is for this reason termed the "Golden Age" of English cabinet making. - Edgar G. Miller, Jr., American Antique Furniture, 1937, Vol. 1, p. 35

George Hepplewhite was almost a contemporary of Chippendale's, dying only seven years later. Practically nothing is known of his life, except that he carried on business in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. Two years after his death in 1786, his The Cabinet-Maker and Up-holsterer's Guide appeared in 1788. A slightly revised edition was published the next year, and in in 1794, the "improved" third edition appeared.

The name Hepplewhite represents a style rather than one man's own handiwork -- a style lighter, and with more delicate grace than Chippendale.

In America, the Hepplewhite style is considered a substyle of Federal.

Where carving was a part of his design, he clung to mahogany; but satinwood, sycamore for fancy veneering, white holly for inlay and division lines, and others more unfamiliar were used by him. On his satinwood panels appeared the decorative paintings of Angelica Kauffman, Michael Angelo Pergolesi, and other Italian artists.

Sideboards and desks were decorated with carved
rosettes, festoons and medallions, employed with chaste restraint. For upholstery, horsehair stuffing came in, covered with satins, silks and other fine fabrics.


Like Chippendale, Hepplewhite lavished much of his genius upon the all-important chair. He was the great popularizer of the shield back, used in many forms. His chair legs were plainer than those of his predecessors, fluted or reeded, tapering to a spade foot which at times thinned down to the "spider-leg."

Shield Back Chairs

The shield design was taken directly from an original Roman model,which Hepplewhite updated by using the proportions of those used by knights in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Hepplewhite's shield backs utilized the tapered leg as did many early classical-style chairs of the time, including those of Thomas Sheraton. The fact that both designers utilized some of the same shapes and designs makes itdifficult to trace the source of inspiration.

One simple rule that might be followed in separating the two versions of shield backs is to look at the top rail. Hepplewhite's pieces are characterized by a rounded unbroken line the entire length, whereas the Sheraton top rails were executed with a horizontal bar or broken line at the top.

Further study of these chairs reveals that Hepplewhite chose rounded designs for his chair backs, whereas Sheraton used rectangualr designs.-- George Michael's Treasury of Federal Antiques pp. 23-24

The backs of these chairs were often adorned with festoons of wheat-ears or pointed fern leaves, or with decorative use of the Prince of Wales's feathers. The general effect of these chairs was of extreme fragility. The painted and japanned satinwood pieces lacked decorative permanence entirely; with little use, the paint wore off, and had to be renewed.

Hepplewhite was also noted for his window-seats designed for the tall, narrow Georgian sash windows, and for countless smaller pieces: urn-shaped knife-boxes in mahogany and satinwood; inlaid tea caddies; delicate little fire-screens; painted work tables; inlaid stands. At times the work shows the height of elegance and a delicious simplicity; on other pieces it sags to unimaginative commonplaces, or virtual ugliness.


Hepplewhite is credited with developing serpentine- and bow-fronted shapes on sideboards. The serpentine-fronted sideboard is a typical example of Hepplewhite's finely proportioned work. This has the usual arrangements of legs, four in front and two at the rear, found on longer sideboards, and of a single central drawer flanked by two others (or in some cases single deep ones) on each side. The central arch (an important feature on these sideboards) has delicate inlay work, like the drawer fronts and apron piece, and there is also line inlay on the legs. The curving front makes a very effective display of figuring.


Among his tables were drop-leaf ones with one square and one oval end, two such tables being formed together to form a longer one. During this time occurred the decline of the highboy and the lowboy, in favor of the wardrobes and chests of drawers similar to modern chiffoniers. The classic note continued through all of his furniture, being taken both from Louis XVI styles and the designs of the Adam brothers. One unusual addition to furniture design was the Duchess chair or tête-à-tête, consisting of two joined armchairs, one faced reverse from the other.

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Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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