Just when we have it settled that Chippendale is a generic term - like "gothic" or "rococo" - along comes a magnificent set of books, marking the 200th anniversary of his death, to remind us that Chippendale was a real person with a first name, Thomas, and an impressive body of work from his own hand.

Christopher Gilbert, principal keeper at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, North England's premier decorative art collection, spent 10 years researching the material which fills these pages. How Chippendale learned his art is still a subject to study, but his commissions from the greatest houses of the time are well-documented here. A remarkable 700 pieces accredited as his work still are extant; one of each design is illustrated.

Chippendale also worked at creating brassware, carpets, wallpaper, coffins, stoves and trade cards as well as entire interiors. His earlier work uses an exuberant rococo style, as well as "gothick" and elements of chinoiserie. Later, he was one of the first Englishman to design in the avant-garde neoclassical taste. Through the several editions of his own book, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, Chippendale influenced other British cabinetmakers as well as those in Scandinavia, Iberia and the Americas.

Gilbert tells us also about Chippendale's personal life: He had two wives and 12 children. He was apprehended more than once trying to smuggle French chair frames past the customs. He had a dreadful time trying to get his rich clients to pay their bills. And he faced bankruptcy more than once.

Today, when the price of English furniture is at an all-time high, this set is indispensable for the collector - or those who would be. The volumes are the first in a series on English cabinetmakers, edited by Geoffrey Beard. (Macmillan, 2 vols., $100)