The Windsor Chair
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE Windsor chair in its early form is coincident with the early years of the eighteenth century. Its history and development therefore exhibit traces of the various styles in furniture which ran their courses throughout the century. It is essentially a chair which belongs to minor furniture, and in its use it is bound up with the country farmhouse, the country inn, or in the metropolis with the chocolate-houses and taverns, and later with the innumerable pleasure gardens which sprang up around the metropolis in the eighteenth century.
There is more than a strong suggestion that the type originated in the country. The first forms have a similarity to the easily made three-legged stools. The seat is one piece of wood into which holes are bored to admit the legs. The origin of the term " Windsor chair," according to a story largely current in America, is that George III, the Farmer King, saw a chair of this design in a humble cottage near Windsor, and was so enamoured of it that he ordered some to be made for the royal use. The chair had a singular vogue in America, and it is stated that George Washington had a row of Windsor chairs at his house at Mount Vernon, and Jefferson sat in a Windsor chair when he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Obviously the earliest type is that with Stick legs without stretcher and the illustration of this primitive form (p. 169) shows the simplicity of the joinery. The seat is of the saddle-form. The spindles at the back in the lower row taper at each end. It will be observed in all the types we illustrate in this chapter except one that the arms extend in one piece around the chair. This is not invariable nor has every example the saddle seat. On the same page is illustrated one without this feature having turned legs and bent wood stretchers.
Whatever interest attaches to this early type, from a collecting point of view, it cannot compare in beauty with the finer varieties of a later period, with cabriole leg and with pierced splat, displaying a pleasing diversity of patterns in pierced work, no two being quite alike.
It was Dr. Johnson who declared that a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity. Undoubtedly the eighteenth century found the need of a comfortable chair for club meetings at taverns and alehouses. The country inn today has its Windsor chairs, many of them of great age. Nor were chairs of this type always with arms. There are many plainer chairs without arms and having what is termed "fiddle-string" backs; that is to say across the back a rail or rails are put transversely to strengthen it. Many of these chairs were made by local carpenters and wheelwrights. They employed any wood that happened to be in their workshop at the time; in consequence the variety of woods in which these chairs are found is great. Sometimes the seat is made from beech or elm and the arms are fashioned from wood of the pear-tree. The curved horseshoe rails and back are more often than not constructed from the ash.
There is no doubt that we owe the considerable output of Windsor chairs in the middle of the eighteenth century to the growth of coffee-houses, and especially the numerous tea and pleasure gardens on the outskirts of London and other great towns. These semi-rural resorts began to be in great demand as a recreation for jaded eighteenth-century town dwellers. The nobility and persons of fashion had Bath and Tunbridge Wells to fly to for country air and open-air recreation. The citizen and mechanic, the society beau, and the politician, crowded to Ranelagh Gardens, to Vauxhall, to Sadler's Wells, and to Hampstead, to enjoy sunny afternoons and summer evenings in the open air, or to spend Sundays. It was the eighteenth-century diversion similar to the nineteenth-century Crystal Palace and the twentieth-century Earl's Court. To quote Mr. Percy Macquoid in his lordly work on English furniture, " So great were the numbers of visitors to these places that attention was called to their increase in one of the contemporary weekly journals, where a calculation was made that on Sundays alone two hundred thousand people visited the tea-gardens situated on the northern side of London; and as half-a-crown per head was probably the least sum expended by them, it can be no exaggeration to state that £20,000 on a fine Sunday was taken at these places of amusement. Many cheap chairs must have been required at such places of entertainment."
Between the year 1760 and the end of the century the Windsor chair was being made for general country use. " The backs and arms of these," continues Mr. Macquoid, "are made of hoops of yew, held together by a number of slender uprights and a perforated splat of the same tough and pliant wood; the seats were generally of elm, as yew cut into a superficies of any size is liable to split; the legs and stretchers were generally of yew."
We have alluded to the use of the rail placed across the back from the top rail to the seat, crossing the uprights. It is not an elegant device, but it was used as a means of strengthening the back. It seems almost unnecessary, although possibly these chairs received a good deal of rough usage. Later, when the fiddle splat began to be employed, this transverse rail—sometimes there were two used—was discontinued. An historic example of the chair with trans-verse rails is that which was once in the possession of Oliver Goldsmith. There is no doubt about the authenticity of this, as it was bequeathed by the poet to his medical attendant Dr. Hawes, who, by the way, was the founder of the Royal Humane Society. Goldsmith told his farmer friends at his cottage at Edgware that he should never in future spend more than two months a year in London, and at the time of his death in 1774 he was negotiating the sale of the lease of his Temple chambers. This chair (illustrated p. 171) has a rather small shaped seat, curved arms, a top rail that is of exceptional interest considering the date, which is, say, from 1770 to 1774, perhaps a little earlier. This was at the commencement of the Hepplewhite period, which lasted till 1790. The turned legs are interesting, showing the hoofed foot, and the turned stretcher retains an earlier form. The chair is of soft wood, probably beech, and is painted green. It is preserved at the Bethnal Green Museum, with the distinctive label on its stand : "Oliver Goldsmith's Chair."
It is here that the Windsor chair assumes a character essentially charming and attracts the admiration of connoisseurs of styles that are peculiarly English. The splat back is a feature only found in English varieties of the Windsor chair. In America a great deal of attention has been paid to old types, and there the pliant hickory wood is used in the making of chairs of this form; but the splat back is never used in America, and when found by collectors there the piece is attributed to English manufacture.
The splat, with its varying forms, denotes the date of the chair. From 1740 to 1770 the form with cabriole legs and with finely ornamented fiddle splat was at its best.
We illustrate a sufficient number of specimens to show how graceful and perfectly well balanced these chairs had become. In contemplating pieces remarkable for the highest style, it must be admitted that their artistry and their simple unaffected sense of comfort do make a direct appeal to those who are willing to recognize fine qualities in minor furniture.
The two chairs illustrated (p. 175) differ slightly in details of construction. That on the left has the plain urn splat, a survival of the Queen Anne type. The seat is finely shaped and the legs are cabriole form. The top rail is almost straight, and is ornamented at the two ends with turned discs. The three stretchers are turned, and in the adjacent chair the stretchers are curved. But here the top rail is a departure in form, imparting a distinctiveness which lifts the chair from the ordinary type.
The two chairs (p. 177) tell their own story. The beautiful sweep of the curved back is always a sign of the old and true form. Later imitations or replicas seem some-how to lose this effect. It has been suggested that the back of this style was produced by the village wheelwright in horseshoe form, but possibly that is a conjecture which is more fanciful than real. It has also—collectors are often fond of inventing theories to fit little-known facts—been asserted that the wheel-back variety (p. 181) which is of somewhat more modern growth, is due to the same origin. This wheel is fretted with six triangular openings. In the examination of the details of these examples there is nothing to differentiate them from each other in construction. They are suggestive of Chippendale in the ornament employed in the splat.
Following the influence of Chippendale and Hepplewhite came the style of Sheraton, which after 1790 began to affect the character of some forms of minor furniture.
That this was a very real factor is often shown most unexpectedly in cottage and farmhouse pieces. The satin-wood and the painted panel, and the intricacies and subtleties of his employment of colour, were of course too far removed from the simple cabinet-work of the country maker to have the least effect upon him, even if he ever saw them. But the slenderness and elegance of the Sheraton styles did in a small degree have weight with cabinet-makers as a whole in the provinces. So that it is quite within reasonable surmise to attribute certain forms to the Sheraton school, or rather to the oncoming of the early nineteenth-century mannerisms. In the wheel-back chair the turned legs begin to show signs of modernity. The fine days of the old Windsor chair were coming to an end.
Apart from the love of the simple form and especially well-conceived design of the Windsor chair, which have made it at once the especial favourite of artists and lovers of simplicity and utility, it has won the practical approval of generations of innkeepers, who to this day store hundreds of chairs for use at village festivals. What we have said in regard to the popularity of the gate-leg table applies in greater degree to the Windsor chair. The industry of turning the legs and rails of this type of chair is still carried on in Buckinghamshire. Until recent years much of this turning was done by hand by villagers in the district surrounding High Wycombe, where the parts are sent to be finished and made up. To this day some of the old chair-makers use the antiquated pole lathe. But the chairs have departed from their old stateliness. It is true that they have survived, almost in spite of themselves. They are not now the objects of beauty they once were. But they have, by reason of modern requirements, found a fresh field of usefulness. Will it be supposed that the modern office chair is in reality a Windsor? An examination will at once show this, even in the latest American types. The saddle-shaped seat is there, the straight turned legs, and the back is the same except that the upper extension has disappeared and the old centre rail has become broader as a properly-formed rest for the tired clerk's back. A persual of a few catalogues of up-to-date furniture will establish this. Here, then, is the last stage of the country Windsor chair. The twentieth-century Windsor has come to town and graces the head cashier's private office in a bank or the senior partner's room of a firm of stockbrokers.