The chair

The trade in English antiques has been replete with palaver about the London season, with a number of my colleagues contributing to the general anxiety with printed debates about the failings of fair promoters, other dealers, and the buying public generally. Although personally no stranger to controversy, there is the old expression about discretion being the better part of valour. Or, as my mother would have it, if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing at all.

Shall we fill in the time with a lively discussion about something we all use but seldom consider? The chair, essential to any posterior, and available in countless incarnations, would seem a natural adjunct to any domestic interior. Surprising then to consider that the chair came into fairly common use only in the 18th century. The use of the term ‘backstool’ to describe the earliest chair designs provides an obvious indication of from whence the chair descended.  With vertical backs formed from stiles that ran directly from the ground to the top rail, the backstool was arguably built more for the display of its upholstery than for the comfort of the sitter.

That a chair might fit some approximation of the seated human form is a gradual innovation, perhaps due to greater market demand the result of the general prosperity in the Georgian England of the early 18th century. With all that, it shouldn’t be assumed that innovation in chair design is easily wrought. The chair pictured looks simple enough with its unadorned, vase-shaped splat, until one realizes the splat is bowed outward to conform to the convexity of the sitter’s back.  And the concavity of the splat is achieved with a rectangular plank that must be vertical at the top with two tenons to fit into corresponding mortises in the top rail, carefully hand shaped in the center to a concave form, and returned to vertical at its base with a tenon to fit into the ‘shoe’ above the rear seat rail.

By the second decade of the 18th century, the expert joinery associated with chair making is probably on a par with the joiner’s essential facility with geometry, to accomplish the basic components of a comfortable chair. Despite the invariable inclusion of chair designs in virtually all furniture design compendia, chair making was often its own specialty. Robert Manwaring was pleased to advertise his own artful facility with the publication in 1765 of his, he said ‘original and not piratical’ designs in The Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companion.

Share this post