William Henry Chippendale was born in Somers Town, London, in August 1801, and was born to play old men. Even as a young actor he was affectionately known as ‘Old Chippendale’ because of his talent for playing older characters.
He was born into an acting family and was brought up in Edinburgh where he father was working. At the age of nine, William himself was on the stage, playing the Page to Stephen Kemble’s Falstaff, which led to numerous children’s parts being offered.
His mother had died giving birth and his father presumably understood the precarious nature of a career on the stage, which led him to guide his son into a more stable trade. Once his formal schooling had finished, William duly started working with James Ballantyne to learn about the printing business and it is said that the young apprentice delivered the proofs of Waverley to Sir Walter Scott. For reasons unknown, William then joined the offices of John Ballantyne, a publisher and literary auctioneer before ending up working as a clerk for a company that went out of business.
W.H. Chippendale was now 18 years old and unemployed; the only option open to him was the stage and he made his first professional appearance in 1819 in The Rivals. Thus began career that spanned nearly seven decades.
From 1820 to 1836 he worked in the provinces touring around the country winning over audiences and refining his unique style. In 1831 he was in London and played the Lord Mayor in Richard III at the The Royal Victoria theatre (now the Old Vic), as a substitute for his father. Edmund Kean was Richard III and Chippendale somehow came to possess the sword that Kean wore when playing the part. Perhaps it was his standing-in for his father that resulted in Kean giving him the sword?
At the age of 33 year he acquired his reputation for playing old men when he played the part of Sir Peter Teazle in the 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal.
In 1836 he received an offer to go to America, which was too good an opportunity to pass-up. Chippendale performed at the Park Theatre, New York, for the next seventeen years, enjoying fame, money and adulation. Among his most popular roles were Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Polonius in Hamlet, Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, and Pickwick.
Chippendale came back to the UK in 1853 and made his return to the London stage at the Haymarket as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals (the play that kicked-off his professional career in 1819).
At the Haymarket he took the lead in courtly comedy, playing Sullen in George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (1856), Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1856), Adam in As You Like It, and Old Dornton in Thomas Holcroft’s The Road to Ruin (1859). He made a great hit in 1861 as Abel Murcott in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin. In January 1869 he was the first Dorrison in T. W. Robertson’s Home, and in October of that year the first Marmaduke Vavasour in Taylor’s New Men and Old Acres.
It was during his time at the Haymarket that his reputation for playing comedic older gentlemen overshadowed any other parts he was capable of playing.
Whilst Chippendale was widely reported to be a great comedian he was admired by his peers for his many portrayals as Polonius in Hamlet and he had played other roles to the Hamlets of William Charles Macready and Barry Sullivan, as well seeing Edmund Kean in the part.
In 1864 Henry Irving was a little-known actor organising his own ‘Benefit’ night in Manchester and had chosen to play Hamlet. Knowing that his performance would be compared to others, gesture for gesture, line for line, expression for expression, Irving apparently travelled overnight to Birmingham to seek out Chippendale who had a vast knowledge of how the part ought to be played. Irving wanted to know exactly how Kean had played each line and the elder actor was happy to oblige him giving an impromptu masterclass.
Irving never forgot the man’s generosity and the two remained firm friends. When Irving first played Richard III, Chippendale gifted Kean’s sword to his friend to wear as Kean had. In September 1878, just as Irving had taken over the management of the Lyceum Theatre, he asked Chippendale to play Polonius to his Hamlet. It was also as Polonius that Chippendale took his farewell benefit at the Lyceum the following year.
W. H. Chippendale had led a full life, married three times and had 23 children, although most predeceased him.
By 1886 there were reports of Chippendale being confined to an asylum and suffering from dementia. He died in London on 3rd January 1888, at the age of 87, and is buried at Highgate cemetery.
He was survived by his third wife Jane, also an actor, and there were hopes that she would set about writing his memoirs and committing his stories to print but alas she only survived him by five months and died unexpectedly in May of the same year.