If you are sitting comfortably then I will begin. The chair shown above is a fine example executed in walnut with a cane panel to the seat and back. This dates from about 1670 to 1680 and is heavily carved. The top rail is often referred to as having a “Boyes and Crown” motif which occurs again on the front rail uniting the front legs. One of the favourite turnings of that period is of course the barley twist which we see again here on all the uprights and on the stretchers. Elsewhere there is repeated use of flower and leaf motifs all showing a strong degree of patination. We see this again on the arms where the elbows and palms of the owner have rubbed revealing the paler Walnut without the accretion of grease,dust, soot, coal tar etc. that gives the darker areas of patination. This would have been made for a substantial home, possibly a merchant’s house or a local manor house and would have been quite expensive as the turnings and carving would have been time consuming for a skilled maker.
As we draw closer to the end of the 17th. century and into the 18th. century through the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne, we see a marked move away from the baronial baroque feel towards a lighter design.
Though the visible sections of this Queen Anne period wing chair are still Walnut, the change from its predecessor are quite dramatic. The purpose of a wing chair was to shelter the owner from drafts. What was the point of pulling one’s most comfortable chair up to the fireplace with a roaring log fire if the windy drafts from a period long before double glazing and thermal insulation in homes, froze one’s shoulders and back? Comfort was increasingly the order of the day. The barley twists have given way to the cabriole legs seen here with carved shell embellishment to the knees and helping to date this to about 1710.
In the history of English Furniture you can always rely on the fact that once a style is set, someone will always go one step further and it is a development of the simplicity of the wing chair that we observe in this Walnut Salon Armchair. It is a few years later than the wing chair and has an early vase shaped back splat.
In fact, with the carving to the scrolling arms and legs this is much more in the Kentian Palladian feel dating from Circa 1725. The double front foot is a very rare device and the use of burr walnut veneers for the back and the frieze is an indication of the rare quality of this piece. I also like the way the top rail of the back is scrolled over to finish it. I am lucky to have had this chair in my collection – I wish I had been able to acquire the rest of the set as this must have been made for a most important household originally.
The vase shaped splat continued through the middle years of the 18th. century and was commonly used by most chairmakers and cabinetmakers. The age of Mahogany dawned and styles continued to evolve.
This armchair always made me smile as I thought of who may have sat on it. The way the cabriole leg has now evolved towards the middle of the century is apparent as it now also has ball and claw feet at the front. Although it retains the carving at the knees, the solid vase shaped splat has now become pierced which gives it an even lighter feel. This is very much a gentleman’s chair and is very robustly put together. It is interesting to see how the treatment of the top rail to the back has changed completely in a quarter of a century.
To return to the subject of fireside chairs and although the wing chair remained popular throughout this period, one of the most favoured designs from the second half of the century was the “Gainsborough” armchair. Contemporary designs by Chippendale and others refer to them as bergeres or burjair chairs and it is possible that the term Gainsborough was a Victorian invention suggesting the Georgian artist painted many of his portraits of subjects who were seated on just such a chair in his studio.
This pair in mahogany and dating to the 1760s now have the square section legs united by a stretcher, downswept arms and a camel shaped top to the back. They were also often covered in leather which would suggest being more of a Library Chair than a drawing room piece. Chippendale was very strongly influenced by the work and designs of Robert Adam during the later period of his life and the introduction of the neoclassical fashion was echoed in his work for Harewood and other such houses. Many of the chairs made during the 1770s reflect a similarity to those being made in France and this is clearly shown in the pair of carved giltwood salon armchairs reproduced here. They are definitely English and the neoclassical symbols are clearly shown in the carved details as well as the overall composition.
There is not a straight line anywhere to be seen on this pair of chairs in a stark contrast to the very linear design of the Gainsboroughs. The gilt chairs would have been for use in a salon or drawing room and have a much more feminine feel to them. These date from about 1775 and would have been costly to produce as gold leaf was never cheap and they were designed to make a statement about the household they were in.
I have cantered through a century of chair design and feel I should really go just a little further and include one more example just into the 19th. century. The Prince Regent had a most profound influence on English taste from the late 18th. century until his demise as George IV in 1820 with the furnishing of Carlton House in London and of course the Pavilion in Brighton. Many of his friends and people who aspired to be in his peer group tried to emulate his tastes (though few had the wherewithal).
This Regency Armchair took my eye for a number of reasons apart from its larger than normal size. The idea is derived from the Chippendale period Gainsborough chairs shown above but the scrolling shape of the arms and the deeply sabred legs place this firmly in the Regency Period. The decoration and gilt line enrichments are pure Regency dating from about 1810. There is a comparable set of chairs in the library at Shugborough Hall though I have been unable to find out where this one was made for or how many could have been in a set.
It always amazes me to see the changes that took place in just over a century here in Britain and to see how we went from the high back walnut Carolean armchair to this Regency larger than life armchair. I could have written much more but space is at a premium and if I haven’t shown any of Sheraton’s designs or Hepplewhite’s I apologise – that might need a second article on chairs!
David Harvey is a well known Antiques Dealer who owns WR Harvey & Co (Antiques) Ltd, in the bustling Cotswold market town of Witney, Oxfordshire. He has a life long passion for fine antique furniture and works of Art. You may very well see him at prominent Antiques Fairs up and down the UK but you will always be more than welcome to call in and see him at the shop. His other passions include rowing and down-hill skiing.