George Hepplewhite (1727 – June 21, 1786) was a cabinet maker. He is regarded as having been one of the ”big three” English furniture makers of the 18th century, along with Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Chippendale. There are no pieces of furniture made by Hepplewhite or his firm known to exist but he gave his name to a distinctive style of light, elegant furniture that was fashionable between about 1775 and 1800 and reproductions of his designs continued through the following centuries. One characteristic that is seen in many of his designs, is a shield-shaped chair back, where an expansive shield appeared in place of a narrower splat design.
Very little is known about Hepplewhite himself. Some established sources list no birth information, however a “George Hepplewhite” was born in 1727 in Ryton Parish, County Durham. He served his apprenticeship in Lancaster and then moved to London, where he opened a shop. After he died in 1786, the business was continued by his widow, Alice. In 1788 she published a book with about 300 of his designs, The Cabinet Makers And Upholsterers Guide, with two further editions published in 1789 and 1790.
Many are quick to praise the designer George Hepplewhite, but there are inconsistencies to his fame. The published guide books, that claim George Hepplewhite as their author, were released after his death by his widow. It was not until years after his death that his designs started to receive recognition.
Little is known about the man George Hepplewhite and only his death certificate seems to offer any hard evidence of his existence. The question arises whether “George Hepplewhite” was a real person or just a name for Alice Hepplewhite to publish under.
With contemporaries such as Thomas Chippendale producing pieces in a variety of styles, Hepplewhite’s famed style is more easily identifiable. Hepplewhite produced designs that were slender, more curvilinear in shape and well balanced. There are some characteristics that hint at a Hepplewhite design, such as shorter more curved chair arms, straight legs, shield-shape chair backs, all without carving. The design would receive ornamentation from paint and inlays used on the piece.
The book influenced cabinet makers and furniture companies for several generations. The work of these generations influenced in turn copies of the original designs and variants of them through the 19th and 20th centuries.