First published in 1982, this is the story of the famous 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer, Thomas Chippendale, author of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Not knowing anything about Chippendale before beginning this book, I was interested in learning more and curious to see why Rosalind Laker had thought he would make a good subject for a novel.
It seems that the amount of information available on Thomas Chippendale is limited; although there are plenty of documents which shed some light on his professional career, we know very little of his personal life, which leaves a lot of scope for an author to use his or her imagination. And use her imagination is exactly what Rosalind Laker does, intertwining Chippendale’s story with that of Isabella Woodleigh, who provides a love interest for Thomas throughout the novel – and who is a completely fictional character.
At the beginning of the novel, Isabella is staying with friends of her father’s at Nostell Priory, a grand estate in Yorkshire, while she recuperates following an illness which has left her weak and frail. When she takes delivery of a wooden wheelchair made especially for her by a local carpenter’s apprentice, she is so grateful and impressed that she becomes determined to meet its creator. This is how Isabella is first brought into contact with Thomas Chippendale, a young man who is just starting out on a career in furniture design.
It’s not long before Isabella falls in love with Thomas and at first it seems that her feelings may be returned – until Isabella’s envious younger sister, Sarah, arrives for a visit and immediately begins to cause trouble. Left with no choice other than to marry the wealthy politician Nathaniel Trench, a man she knows she will never love, Isabella’s life starts to follow a very different course to the one she had expected and hoped for. Meanwhile, Thomas leaves Yorkshire for London, where he sets about establishing his own business. His path crosses with Isabella’s again and again, but is there still any chance that Isabella’s dreams will come true?
With a lot of focus on Chippendale’s love affairs, this book will probably be enjoyed by fans of older-style historical romances. Having said that, I didn’t find this a particularly romantic story, mainly because so many of the characters were so difficult to like. While I admired Thomas for what he achieved as a craftsman, I lost respect for him during an incident with Isabella’s sister, Sarah, early in the novel, and after this I wished Isabella would just forget about him and move on. The other men in Isabella’s life treat her badly too, as does Augusta, her own mother – and Sarah is a horrible, manipulative person, with no real explanation given for why she is so cruel and vicious towards everyone she meets.
Despite disliking most of the characters, including the hero, I still found this an interesting read with more to offer than just the romance. We are given a lot of information on architecture, furniture making and interior design; it was impressive to see the amount of effort and hard work which Chippendale put into perfecting his skills and learning new ones – including carving, veneering, marquetry and gilding. I particularly enjoyed reading about the dolls’ house Thomas creates at Nostell; so much care and attention to detail was required to carve miniature bedposts and create little frames for tiny paintings and mirrors.
Gilded Splendour provides some fascinating insights into Thomas Chippendale’s life and work. The only problem is that with so much of the novel devoted to his relationship with an imaginary character, it’s difficult to know which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. As long as that doesn’t bother you, I think this book is definitely worth reading.
I received a copy of Gilded Splendour via NetGalley for review.