Christmas cheer from Thomas Chippendale – The 1721 Naval Store Act had unexpected benefits

Earlier this year Boscobel moved into new offices at 60 St Martin’s Lane, in Covent Garden, the historic creative hub of London. Some research about a talented previous occupant shows how unexpectedly good things can come if we have the wit to encourage enterprise and civility.

A plaque by the door reminds us that it was on this site that the furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale and his son rented their workshop from Lord Salisbury. It is from here that they manufactured their distinctive elegant hard-wood furniture when the Industrial Revolution was getting into full swing from the 1750s onwards.

1721 Naval Stores Act

What is not commonly appreciated is that the very existence of Chippendale’s innovative English Rococo designs was only made possible by the 1721 Naval Stores Act, which repealed duties on commodities required by the voracious Royal Navy. Among these were mahogany from Jamaica and walnut and pine from North America.

An abundant supply of imported hardwoods stimulated domestic craftsmen, joiners and cabinet makers. Thomas was born in Yorkshire, the son of a joiner and in 1718 and later moved to London.

The Director

In 1754 Chippendale published his celebrated catalogue of slim and lightweight designs, called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. This, it proclaimed reflected ‘. . . MODERN TASTE, as improved by the politest and most able Artists’.

In so doing, he pioneered an interesting business model. The Director was sold to an initial 400 subscribers at £1. 10 shillings each, making him £130,000 in today’s money. Not only did this provide working capital for his business, it advertised his prowess to an influential clientele. It was reissued twice with additional plates.

The initial subscribers included 28 titled persons, 21 designated Esq, and numerous craftsmen, keen to copy his designs. Four subscribers were ladies. Many of the subscribers, such as the Countess of Shaftesbury, the Dukes of Beaufort and Norfolk, and the Earl of Dumfries, went on to commission works from Chippendale.

It was a time of abundance. The Georgian aristocracy were growing ever more wealthy on the newfound prosperity which they benefited from as investors or as landowners collecting revenues from canals and turnpikes or from the mining of coal (and in some cases, it should be admitted slave-owning plantations). There was also a growing, rising, affluent class of entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen, artists and City professionals. A step change in the human condition, originating in Britain, was underway.

Following Adam Smith’s advice

At times of uncertainty we should take comfort from history, reminders of which are frequently around us. There are lessons to be learned and it helps give perspective. When MPs passed the Naval Stores Act nearly 300 years ago, they cannot have imagined the unexpectedly good things which would ultimately come from following Adam Smith’s advice – coincidentally given to Glasgow students in the same year The Director was published: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavour to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.”

Happy Christmas and fingers crossed, on both hands, for all of you in 2019 from the Boscobel team.

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