THERE is a certain class of collectors of old furniture and other
antiques who seem to take a special delight in acquiring and dis playing
the hideous and useless monstrosities of an unenlightened age. They
will give the place of honor to some battered and dilapidated old relic
and call it "quaint."
Fortunately for most of us, however, not all antiques fall into that
class, and there are plenty of fine old things whose intrinsic beauty
and sincerity of workmanship raise them to the high level of works of
art. Like the Iliad or the Taj Mahal, they will abide when this
generation's fads have vanished.
Fortunately, too, there are plenty of antiques that are as useful
today as they ever were-and the best of them were originally made for
use-and that possess features that make them better furnishings for
our modern homes than the newer, and perhaps less artistic, creations,
provided the architecture of the house and the other home surroundings
are not too violently out of keeping. Can you imagine a more beautiful
receptacle for a bouquet of roses than a Wedgwood vase, and does the
subtle charm depart from an old chair when it is fit to be sat upon?
Take the single subject of old chairs, for example. For delicacy of
design, fineness of carving, generosity of curve, and perfection of
proportion, the best examples of Chippendale's mid-period work have never
been surpassed anywhere, and as to the materials, the solid,
fine-grained, rich-toned mahogany that he used is simply unobtainable to-day. The
wise collector will think of these things. He will not buy an antique
merely because it is old and rare. He will think of it, unless he is
stocking a museum, as a possible addition to the furnishings of his home,
and will apply to it all the rigid requirements that a modern piece
would be obliged to meet to be acceptable.
In the brief account of old chairs which will follow-for the subject
is too large a one to discuss exhaustively within the limits of a
single chapter. I will ask you to search between the lines for such
information or suggestion as may enable you to decide which of these types of old
chairs is best suited to modern use. When you buy an old chair,
determine if it be really old, genuine, and fairly priced. But examine it also
for good workmanship and intrinsic beauty, and try to see if it be
comfortable. Chairs to be seen and not sat upon are intolerable
encumbrances. The following account itself will be chronological, for the most
part, for the sake of convenience, but the purpose of it is practical.
To illustrate, let us first consider the subject of French chairs, a
large majority of which fall promptly into the pretty but useless
class. They were used to some extent in this country in George Washington's
day, but the pieces which have come down to us in their original form
are for the most part in a frightful condition of dilapidation, with the
legs and arms wabbly, the gilt knocked off, and the upholstery in
tatters. Even those that are in good condition are out of place in any but
the most pretentious drawing-rooms. They are fragile, and although the
backs generally slant away from the perpendicular, they are not
Among the early Louis XIV chairs there were some fairly comfortable
armchairs upholstered in tapestry. In those dating from 1700 to 1715,
however, comfort has given way to style, and rococo ornament has taken
the place of good construction.
Some of the Louis XV upholstered chairs are not bad (1715-1774), but
they are mostly gilt or painted affairs of fragile stiffness, though
often of much beauty in the carving. Here we find luxury without comfort or
In the Louis XVI period (1774-1793) there was less ornament and
greater delicacy and simplicity, though detail was never lacking. The
chairs of that period are more useful and more tastefully beautiful. Much
of the upholstered furniture of the period is fairly comfortable,
especially the armchairs, but its appearance is generally stiff and weak,
and it has not stood the test of time particularly well. For sitting
purposes one naturally passes by these French chairs when there is anything
else in the room. ''
There are old Spanish, Flemish, and Italian chairs of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-chiefly carved walnut-that are both solid
and beautiful, but they seldom come within the range of the average
collector. For honesty of workmanship, and beauty combined with utility, the
English chairs are not surpassed, and as these are far more numerous in
this country than any others, it is with these that I shall chiefly
During the last half of the sixteenth century a turned-wood chair
was in vogue, with a flat wooden seat. This style was Byzantine in
origin, and was first introduced into Scandinavia, and from there brought
into England by the Normans. This style disappeared about i6oo, and turned
work did not appear again until the time of Charles I. It then
persisted for two centuries or more, to a greater or less degree, in the more
The year 1600 may be taken as a starting-point for the study of
English chairs. The early Elizabethan chair was square, ugly, and
uncomfortable, but interesting in the development of style. It was all of wood,
and rather crude in workmanship.
Then there was the wainscot chair, truly Jacobean in type. This was
made of hard wood-usually oak -seat and all. It was very heavy, with
heavy underbracing near the floor. It may be interesting to note that as
time went on the underbracing became generally lighter and lighter,
until in Georgian days we find it frequently dispensed with altogether.
The underbracing, therefore, is a more or less reliable indication of
age. The wainscot chair had arms and high back, usually carved, and
sometimes matching the wainscoting of the room. The vertical back made it
possible to place the chair flat against the wall.
These chairs are very rare, but if found they are very decorative
and frequently useful in modern halls. They are rather comfortless, but
cushions were formerly used in them sometimes, and there is no reason
for not using them now.
Somewhat later came the so-called Cromwellian chair, built on
similar lines, but not quite so heavy. Instead of the solid wooden back there
was a half back, usually upholstered in leather. The seat was also of
leather. These chairs are far less decorative than the wainscot chairs.
They always had turned legs and stretches, of the style shown in the
With the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660,
there came greater luxury and comfort into English homes, and a new
style in furniture, due perhaps to the king's sojourn on the Continent,
and to the influence of his wife, Catherine of Portugal, for in those
days royalty's right to set the fashion was unquestioned.
The chairs of this period, up to the close of the century, are
sometimes called Jacobean, but Stuart or Restoration is a more accurate
term, for the Jacobean period, strictly speaking, came to an end with the
death of Charles I in 1649 It is also called bn some the walnut
An interesting feature of these chairs is that almost without
exception they are decorated with carving representing either a Tudor rose or
a crown supported by two infants, suggesting the restoration of the
At first there was a development of the Cromwellian chair, with
turned work, a square frame, and upholstery in leather or "Turkey work."
This latter was an imported Oriental fabric, woven after the manner of
some Turkish rugs, and popular for upholstery at this time and later.
The real innovation of the period was the carved chair with cane
seat and back. There were two types, both of which are graceful and
excellent in modern halls where a chair chiefly decorative is desired. These
two types have been called Flemish and Spanish, because of certain
The Flemish Stuart chair has a high, narrow back, the center of
which is of cane in a splat effect, with spaces between it and the turned
uprights at the sides. More or less elaborate carving-frequently
scrollwork-appears at the top and on the broad underbrace. The seat is cane,
woven much like our modern cane seats. This chair nearly always had
S-shaped legs with scroll feet, usually turning outward-a Flemish
feature.There are some variations of this chair, the work of English designers,
and on some of the later ones upholstery is used. Walnut, maple, beech,
and oak were the woods employed in both the Flemish and the Spanish
In the Spanish Stuart chair we find the Spanish foot-broad, turning
slightly outward, and usually fluted. The legs are turned and the
underbrace carved. The back is tall and narrow, but solid, with no splat
effect. The backs and seats are sometimes of tooled Spanish leather-seldom
Turkey workthough in the English adaptations cane was more often used.
These chairs are rare and valuable, and many of them are beautiful.
In the reigns of William and Mary, and William III (1689-1702),
these chairs underwent various changes. The splat effect was dropped almost
entirely, upholstery became more common, and Dutch features became
evident. Gradually the Dutch element came to predominate until the
cabriole-leg days of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when the Flemish and Spanish
features practically disappeared.