Friday, 06 March 2015

10 Great British Chairs

We often take them for granted, but chairs are a little piece of our history, says Adam Bowett

Written by written by Adam Bowett
The chair is a universal object of the Western world. Its function is immediately apparent and its use is embedded in Western society and culture. But function and use are only part of the story, for all historic chairs are also direct links to the past, to the craftsmen who made them and the people who sat in them.

House-Mar06-04-590LEFT: Reading/writing chair, c. 1725-40. An adjustable reading/writing slope is attached to the back. The arms are fitted with a swivelling pen drawer to one side and a brass candle holder to the other. It is made of crabwood. CENTRE: Hall chair, c.1840. This oak chair is designed by AWN Pugin RIGHT: Armchair, c. 1600-50. The iron staples, probably added in the 18th century, were intended to accommodate two wooden poles for carrying the occupant aloft

The human form imposes obvious constraints on chair design, so chairs of all types and periods share a few basic characteristics. For instance, since the middle of the 17th century, almost all British and European chairs have had a seat about 17in (43cm) high. This is the height at which an average person sits withhis or her feet on the floor.

House-Mar06-02-590LEFT: Knot Chair c1990 Designed by John Makepeace – often hailed as the father of modern British furniture design – this chair, made at the Parnham workshops, is one of a set of four commissioned by a private client. CENTRE: chair, c. 1865 An EW Godwin design for the Council Chamber of Northampton Guildhall, this chair is called the Councillor’s Chair. It is made of oak with wood inlay and original leather seat. RIGHT: chair, c. 1990 Designed by George Montague Ellwood and made by JS Henry Ltd, London, this chair, one of a pair, is made of sycamore, inlaid with holly, brass and pewter, now with 20th-century woven wool

Chair height, in turn, determined table height, typically 28-30in (71-76cm) since the late 17th century. Given the unvarying ergonomic demands of the human form, it is remarkable to witness the variety of chair types and styles made over the centuries. This is also a tribute to the ingenuity of chair designers and chair makers, as well as a reflection of the changing social and aesthetic priorities of chair owners. For a chair is not just a thing to sit on; it is imbued with meaning in a way that most other furniture is not.

The changing cultural role of chairs has had a profound impact on their use, and the English language has a unique way of conveying the nuances of culture and status in relation to seat furniture, because of the many different names it has for seats. The word ‘chair’ derives from the French chaise, the language of the Norman conquerors of 1066. Hence, chairs were high-status objects for important people, a notion that is explicit in contemporary descriptive terms such as ‘great chair’. In some houses there might be only one such chair, while the other seats were stools. The word ‘stool’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon stol, originally meaning any chair or seat (as it still does in modern German).

House-Mar06-03-590LEFT: Hoop-back windsor chair, c.1780-1820. A Windsor chair is defined by its construction. The seat, usually a single thick board, forms the primary structural member, into which everything else is fixed. The centre baluster splat is pierced with the Prince of Wales feathers. The chair is made of yew and elm. RIGHT: Armchair, c.1890 This design is attributed to George Jack. Originally made of oak, now with early 20th-century woven wool and mohair, it was marketed as the Saville Easy Chair. The upholstery fabric, Elmcote, was designed c. 1900 by John Henry Dearle (1859-1932)

However, Anglo-Saxon was the language of the medieval underdog, so the word ‘stool’ was applied to a low-status seat without back or arms. Therefore the head of the household used a chair, but his family and servants sat on stools.

100 British Chairs, edited by Adam Bowett (Antique Collectors’ Club, £25).

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