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Chairs - Sixteenth Century

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The high - backed bench gave place to the curule-shaped chair which became popular about 1530, having been reintroduced into England by Italian workmen, who were brought over to this country in the reign of Henry VIII. Early in the sixteenth century painted chairs were commonly in vogue both in England and on the Continent of Europe. The Spanish chair was a favourite type, its high back and carved arms, turned legs, and connecting rails distinguishing it from earlier styles. The chairs were then of three general types—the X-shape, the thrown or turned, and the " seeled " (enclosed by panels). The last-named variety came in when, after armour had been discarded, there was no longer need for heavy or strong seats or stools. The " seeled " or closed chair was merely an adaptation of the ecclesiastical seats or stalls then in churches, which were ready at hand to copy or adapt. The Spanish cathedrals furnish some of the best examples. From the ornamentation on many of these it is assumed that their makers derived their inspiration from German sources, That was due, probably, to wood-workers and carvers from the Low Countries settling in Spain at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The decoration of those chairs was mostly intarsia (explained fully in chapter xx.). There are still many fine sixteenth-century chairs in the Cathedral of Toledo. In the Treasury of St Mark's in Venice there is a high-backed walnut chair, reputed to be an ancient Doge's throne.

Women used cushions and sat on the floor during the sixteenth century. To the City of Pisa belongs the credit of having founded a new style in 1587, when light chairs with rush seats, especially suitable for women, were made. Not long afterwards in France some pleasing little chairs were modelled. One of these, the coquetoire, was much used by ladies for sitting upon in front of the fire, thus taking the place of stools or cushions which had been used previously.

All through the sixteenth century it was customary to place armchairs for those entitled to sit at the high places at table, benches and stools being used by others. This custom prevailed in France and in other Continental countries. Towards the close of the century stools and benches gave place to chairs, and household furniture became more uniform, owing, probably, to the gradual division of the servants and retainers from the family, all of whom had at an earlier period feasted in the common hall.

In Flanders leather - covered seats were used towards the close of the sixteenth century ; in England stools continued in common use. They were to be found everywhere. Such seats were usually " joyned " stools with simple turned legs, the framework being sometimes ornamented with strap decorations. When the swelled bulb or melon bulb became fashionable in Elizabeth's time that form of ornament was applied to the legs of stools, as well as to other furniture.

In the dining-hall the joint or carver's stool came into vogue. It was referred to by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, in which we learn that when Capulet's Hall was being cleared for the dance, the serving man cried, "Away with the joint stools, remove the court cup-board, look to the plate." Chairs were not common in Elizabeth's reign, but they were more freely introduced. They were solid looking, carved with floral decorations, and inlaid with rare woods in conventional designs. Those were the days when the farthingale was in fashion and large chairs were needed.

There are some relics of note belonging to the sixteenth century, among them Queen Mary's chair, reminiscent of her marriage with Phillip of Spain, kept in Winchester Cathedral (this X-shaped chair was used at her wedding). There are other examples of sixteenth-century seats and many benches, but few possess reliable pedigrees. Mr F. Harris Mitchell, of Chard, possesses a fine old Gothic bench, recently loaned to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which for many years was in the Green Dragon Inn, at Coombe St Nicholas, in Somerset. It is a grand old piece with linen-fold back and many interesting features, although time and rough usage have injured much of the decorative carving.



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