Friday, October 16, 2015

A Hepplewhite by Any Other Name

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love research. While attending a conference, I heard something about historical furniture that startled and amazed me. So, of course, I had to poke into it and share it with you!

Three names made furniture from the late 1700s and early 1800s famous: Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Chippendale, and George Hepplewhite. We know where and when Sheraton and Chippendale were born, with whom they apprenticed, and where and when they died. Wonderful pieces from either still exist as cherished heirlooms or museum pieces. But George, well George is something of a mystery.

You see, we don’t know where precisely George was born, or the even the day and year. No master was quick to claim him as apprentice. We have only an approximate year when he died. And not one stick of furniture he designed still exists.

Instead, what we have is a guide of his designs published supposedly posthumously by his grieving widow. Alice Hepplewhite published The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788, with revisions in 1789 and 1790. The guide contains around 300 drawings, most allegedly by her husband, but as some sources note, George’s name is not included on the title page. Instead, Alice’s name graces over 175 of those drawings. She went on to run the establishment that supposedly had belonged to George. Some sources claim that records show her inheritance; others state the couple had four children. A cursory search failed to verify either claim.

So, was George merely a humble and quiet man who died too young for his genius to be appreciated? Or was Alice, in fact, the designer behind the furniture we still revere? It was a time when women frequently published under pseudonyms or generic titles such as “by a lady.” Could Alice have done the same?

Still, when all is said and done, if she was going to select a nom de plume, she might have chosen something other shorter and easier to spell than Hepplewhite. 

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