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Chairs - Seventeenth Century

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The beginning of the seventeenth century was marked by the commencement of colonisation. Those who landed in Virginia and formed settlements carried only bare necessaries. They did not take furniture with them.

In 1620 the Mayflower sailed, and the first seats made in New England homes were settles. Those most favoured were made with ear or wing pieces at the end, and lockers were provided under the seats. Some had shelves for candles at the back. In connection with the seats used in New Holland churches it is said the Dutch vrouws were provided with footstools on which were painted pictures of the Last Judgment.

In England the substantial furniture of the earlier period was still favoured, but many of the chairs were lighter and more decorative. The box settle or monk's bench was deemed a useful seat, its movable high back folding over and making it a table rendered it useful in a small house. The ordinary settle might have been seen in almost every home in rural England at that time ; as the century advanced there was a general lightening of the framework of the settle, and a shallower relief in the carving. The chair mostly favoured during the first half of the century was plain, simple, and stunted in appearance. It was frequently upholstered. In the reign of James I. many richly covered farthingale chairs were made ; one of these in walnut, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, of the period 1603-1625, is covered with woollen cloth, decorated with applied embroidery in coloured silks on canvas.

Charles I gave much encouragement to some of the fine arts, and during his reign the taste for richly upholstered chairs increased, much labour being expended on the needlework.

Many valuable and what would have been now much-prized antiques were destroyed during the Civil War, when so many castles and their furniture were demolished. It was about the time of the Commonwealth that spiral turnery was introduced from Holland, although that kind of work had been known at a much earlier date, as was evidenced by the turned or thrown chairs previously referred to (see Fig. 7). The so-called Cromwell chairs were doubtless of Dutch origin, too. They were mostly upholstered in leather.

The greatest change of the century in chair-making came after the Restoration. Italian and Spanish influence were noticeable in the artistic mode prevailing during the reign of Charles II. The new style in chair-making originated in the introduction of Flemish front rails, Spanish feet, and the inclusion of Italian cupids holding and supporting English crowns. At that time there came an influx of Chinese and Eastern influence in design, for Bombay was the dowry of Queen Catherine, and thenceforth England was brought into close commercial touch with India and the Far East.

Walnut was at that time much used, although oak was still preferred for tables and heavy furniture. Walnut was better for the carvers of the Restoration, and more suitable than oak for the turned and twisted rails and legs and the carved backs of the upright and caned chairs.

To fully understand the coming of walnut it is necessary to remember that although walnut trees had been planted in England in Queen Elizabeth's reign it was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the new timber was ready for the woodman's axe.

Once again we have to refer to the Dutch influence in furniture which made itself felt so forcibly in the days of William and Mary. It has been said that the Restoration style was not English," and consequently did not survive Court influence after the death of Charles II. and the abdication of James II. The same might be said of the Dutch style, except that the Hogarth chair, which developed in the reign of Queen Anne, became an accepted English style.

The refurnishing of palace and mansion during the reign of William and Mary continued to perpetuate the style which had been introduced under Dutch influence ; it also brought the marqueterie, which rendered chairs and other furniture so ornamental at the close of the seventeenth century. The delightful effects produced by marqueterie and inlays were also applicable to the altered shapes of walnut chairs with their broad splats and backs so well adapted to that kind of decoration (see chapter ix.). When the century closed art decoration was under a cloud ; Queen Mary was dead, and even the designs of the marqueterie had been changed.

The accompanying illustrations show the variety of chairs in use during the century—previous to those made during the reign of William and Mary. Fig. 81 is a plain chair, dated 1687; it is of the type which had been in use for many years, and was such as were made by country joiners—a good substantial chair suggestive of the period when coffers were made, and contrasting strongly with the more ornate carved chair, shown in Fig. 82. That is one of those commonly called a " vestry chair," although there is nothing ecclesiastical about it. It is, however, one of dignity, well suited to the worthy who would preside over parish meetings ; the arms are unusually high and strong, and it is of an earlier date than the plain chair shown in Fig. 81. Fig. 83 is an interesting piece ; it is a child's high chair with turned legs and rails, showing the position of the foot-rest and front rail. Very different, indeed, are the two handsome carved walnut chairs, of the period 1685-1689, shown in Figs. 84 and 85 ; they are truly a beautiful pair, the carved backs being exceptionally good, and the upholstery and fringe in excellent condition.

The splendid carved settee, of walnut wood, with carved back, illustrated in Fig. 86, is of Charles II. period — circa 1686 ; this rare piece is in the possession of Messrs Waring & Gillow Ltd.



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