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Chair And Settees

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE evolution of the seat—chair, stool, couch, and settee —is one of the most fascinating romances connected with antique furniture. It is obvious that tired humanity quickly learned the need of resting its weary limbs, and although the couch provided by Mother Earth was the first upon which human limbs were stretched and the primitive tribes reclined in sleep, artificial resting-places followed quickly. At what stage in the onward march man (and woman, too) began to sit upright, we know not ; it is clear, however, that like some of the brute creation, even the primitive savage soon learned to vary his resting posture, and sat as well as reclined.

Fallen rocks, boulder stones, and water-worn seats by river banks were Nature's chairs, and when the fallen tree provided a wooden seat the first stage in chair making had been reached. The stone hatchet, and later the bronze celt, cut off superfluous branches and trimmed suitable logs. Many cromlechs and the great trilithons of Stonehenge tell of the early mechanical and architectural balancing of a slab of stone crosswise on two upright stones. The prehistoric dweller in mud hut had before him a model to copy, and a chair or stool of large size from which he could make a primitive seat of wood or stone. From that beginning the seat supported by legs or feet often fashioned in human form may well have been evolved. The evolution of the seat was one continued triumph of the chair-maker's craft, for it revealed his identity, his close connection with what was going on around him, and his impressionable nature which received fresh impulses from passing events in his own and other countries, and especially so from his environment.

In mediaeval England the Joiners' Company made chairs and other furniture. In the division of the work of the carpenter and the joiner, the latter was apportioned " rayles, sealinge boards, wainscott Clapp-boards, and bed timber," as materials from which to make furniture. But those joiners only followed in the footsteps of others, who in the course of centuries had separated themselves from kindred craftsmen. Like the carpenters the joiners of the Middle Ages believed in strength and solidity.

BEFORE THE CHRISTIAN ERA

For seats of shapely form preserved in museums, sculptured on lasting tablets and monuments of stone, and painted on sarcophaguses of the dead we must turn to ancient Egypt. From a tomb of the fourth century before the Christian era comes a carved wood chair, having legs like those of a lion. That, the oldest type, was reproduced on more modern lines and upholstered and cushioned in France under the New Empire.

Mention is made in another chapter of the chair which once belonged to Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty, now on view in the British Museum. It bears the royal cartouche, and is still magnificent in its decay. It is of rosewood, and its legs are carved to resemble those of bulls ; a gilded cobra entwines itself around each leg, and there are other emblems and carvings of great merit adorning this ancient chair. Other Egyptian chairs or thrones were fashioned like running lions, from which they were doubtless modelled. In the paintings of the walls of tombs are seen many such chairs and a plenteous supply of skins. Such seats were for those in high degree, and were not used by dependents, who sat about on the ground, but they tell of an art achieved, and point to a lost period of chair-making, representing a still earlier age, during which the development of the craft from primitive seats as exemplified in nature to those perfected by Egyptian artists went on.

Greek artisans from the earliest recorded accounts were clever makers of chairs, too. Some few ancient examples are extant, and far more are rendered familiar by paintings on Greek vases. The thronos was a seat of honour occupied by gods and wealthy citizens alike. Temple seats were of marble and beautifully carved, but wood was the material employed in making the Greek domestic high seat or chair over which skin rugs were thrown, and in connection with which cushions were used. The chief Greek chair besides the thronos was the diphros, a cross-legged seat or stool with a webbed seat. It was a folding chair upon which some art was expended ; and the decorations were of special interest. The diphros was eventually lengthened, and became a reclining couch without head- or foot-rest. To this was added a side or back, and a head, and in that there was a model for cabinet - makers to copy centuries later when they contrived a sofa.

Another Greek chair named klismos had a comfortable sloping back with a bar, forming a rest for the shoulders. That, too, was not far behind modern chairs in elegance and comfort. Many illustrations of Greek thronoi may be noted in the frieze of the Parthenon in the British Museum, and in sculptures showing bronze chairs damascened with gold and silver made during the last two centuries preceding the Christian era.

In Rome replicas of Greek chairs were made by Greek workmen whom the Romans employed. Low-railed chairs accommodating three were used at meals, at which the men reclined but the women sat. The sella curalis was the folding-seat placed in the chariot and used at the baths and in lecture halls ; and as time went on the use of more luxurious seats grew apace.

A THOUSAND YEARS

A thousand years in the history of chair-making seems in the light of present day progress an impossible period to compress into one short paragraph. Yet so little is known of the intermediate stages of the evolution of the chair—if such can be said to have then existed—that there is very little indeed to chronicle. The authentic examples of domestic furniture used prior to the Norman Conquest are few indeed. Roman civilisation spread, but the artisans of that great Empire moved slowly out of their accustomed ruts. Wherever the legions went the same rule was established, and Roman generals sought to plant towns and cities on the model of Rome. They built baths and houses with porticos, irrespective of the climate of the conquered countries in which they settled —and they made chairs and tables on the patterns they and their ancestors had used in the Imperial City. It was so in Britain all through the four centuries of Roman occupation. The curule chair mentioned already was the type of chair represented as St Edward's seat in the Bayeaux tapestry, made more than a thousand years after the style had been formulated.

In Saxon days stools were used which in their plainness contrasted with the heavily underframed chairs of state or honour. The importance of the state chair has come down to us throughout the ages, and we still attach some honour to the man who " occupies the chair." The chair-man sitting in a chair somewhat larger and more imposing than those occupied by his friends around him claims attention. When there are cries of "Chair! Chair ! " its occupant feels a reflection of the dignity of the throne.

There are a few chairs of historical renown still extant, which were made during the first thousand years of the Christian era. Among them the chair of St Peter in the Vatican, supposed to have been made prior to the fifth century ; that of St Maximian at Ravenna ; the seventh-century chair of Dagobert, now in the Musee des Souveraines at Paris ; and the chair of the Venerable Bede.

A development in seats was made in Saxon days when fireplaces were built. The stool or bench had been lengthened into a seat for three or more ; a back had been added, and thus a settle was formed. The settle was a portable seat often placed at right angles to the fire (as in the ingle-nook), and was in later times winged to prevent draughts.



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