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The Bannister Back Chair
( Article orginally From August 1963 )
The bannister back chair is one of America's few contributions to the decorative arts. This developed from the elegant, carved caneback chair introduced from Flanders with the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. Some cane chairs were imported by the wealthier colonists and some few were made here (Figure i).
Cane came from the Orient, making the cost high and supply uncertain, so native genius, coupled with a flair for design, brought about the substitution of vertical bannisters for cane in the back, together with rush or, less commonly, a wooden panel for the seat. How our colonial craftsmen accomplished this metamorphosis is illustrated in Figure 2.
The type reached full development in the last years of the 17th century and early years of the 18th century. Retaining the graceful height and tall, finely carved crest from the Carolean chair, they also show the utmost in fine turning (Figure 3). The turner's skill produced all parts except the two horizontal members engaging the bannisters. This phase of the style can be assigned to the first quarter of the 18th century, although we should not rule out possible "survival pieces" or those copied at a somewhat later date.
During the early 1700s, there was a trend away from elegant carving; and increase in population had its concomitant in demand for more furniture. Comparison of the chairs depicted in Figures 3 and 4 may show what resulted therefrom. The fine turnery of both is virtually identical, except for the more simple sausage turned front rungs, and absence of turned feet on the latter, which is also devoid of carving. Can we believe that the second example is later, or perhaps a production for a client with a less well filled purse, but both from the same shop? Was the latter produced by an apprentice who, after setting up for himself, followed his master's design? Was the carved chair (it was found near Boston) produced in the relatively populous, prosperous, older settled coastal region while the simpler piece, which came from the vicinity of Long Island Sound, was representative of the change to the less developed environment of a more recently settled locality? Finally, the simple chair could have been produced more quickly, hence in greater quantity at a lower cost.
The number of shorter, lighter bannister back chairs with crests carved after the manner of a day bed (Nutting called this crest "Dutch") have been found in eastern Massachusetts north of Boston (Figure 5). These have been attributed to John Gaines II of Ipswich, who did turning as early as 1707 and who was making bannister backs in 1717. Information on Gaines and his work resulted from the discovery of his account book, now in the Joseph Downs' Manuscript Collection at Winterthur.
Numerous small, light, attractive bannister back chairs were made in New England throughout the second quarter of the 18th century and perhaps until almost the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Two examples are shown in Figure 6. We notice a decreased height; a lightening of structural members; the turning is not so fine, with less of it; and crests are simple sawn profiles.
Toward the middle of the 18th century an unfortunate intermingling of styles occurred. The tall crest, an important part of the bannister back style, was replaced by a drooping top rail or yoke borrowed from the Dutch chairs (Figure I). The turned bannisters, which contributed so much with their pleasing outlines, were replaced by flat, molded bannisters. This last was easier, faster, and cheaper, but these two elements, plus the loss of height, less well done finials, and diminished beauty of turnery, spelled the decadence of the style.