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Chairs - Eighteenth Century

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The eighteenth-century furniture, especially chairs, includes a very wide range of style. It brings the collector face to face with the antique and early collectable period of valuable pieces at its beginning, and at its close brings before him furniture suggestive of what he is using every day, for at the present time there is much that in design and decoration reminds us of the furniture of a hundred years ago. At the commencement of the eighteenth century the high-backed narrow chairs were seen side by side with the Dutch chair. The " Hogarth, " as the chair was afterwards called, was supported by cabriole legs, that is legs springing outward like a bent knee, then curving gracefully downwards, tapering towards the foot, which was often of hoof-like form. The stretcher, which was retained for a time, was a relic of the Restoration period, but it was set further back, indicating an important departure from hitherto approved principles of chair-making. In a very short time the cabriole leg with hoof-foot was modified somewhat, and terminated with a club-foot, which remained one of the characteristics of the Hogarth " chair of Queen Anne's days, and for some years after her death. All traces of the "Spanish foot " and " Portuguese stretcher," had then gone. The uncomfortable upright back of the Restoration was a thing of the past. The new chair was smooth and comfortable, especially so when the seat was upholstered or cushioned. The seat itself was wide ; the central splat and two uprights forming the back were shaped to fit the occupant of the chair—a most important feature. The evolution of the Dutch design was complete, and an English style had been produced (for upholstered chairs, see chapter xxxi.).

Along with the " Hogarth " chair the settee, which looked like two or three chairs combined, became popular, this new seat continuing to hold its own, and the love-seats of that and subsequent reigns continued throughout the century.

As it has been pointed out marqueterie ceased, and the backs of the chairs were made lower. They were not all plain, for as the century advanced delicate carvings were introduced, and the basis of the style which after-wards became Chippendale's pattern, was firmly established. The stuffed seats of the chairs formed an important departure. A new style was created by the introduction of three-cornered chairs, the backs of which consisted of two splats and a top-rail of semi-circular form.

In France progress was made, the lit de repos or chaise longue was fashionable in the reign of Louis XIV. The four-sided tapering legs of the chairs were ornamented. Sometimes they were inlaid with marqueterie, and at others painted or gilded. Towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV. an armchair with curved and arched back became fashionable. Then came the painted white and gold chairs of the Louis XV. period, which were often made of beech wood ; and towards the end of that period the causeuse, which was a comfortable armchair, and the upholstered fauteuil, appeared. Both the fauteuil and the bergere were referred to in the pattern books of English makers at that time. The cane-backed gondola chair of Louis XV. and little gondola sofas and ottomans were very decorative, and were frequently richly although gaudily upholstered. Later came the change in ornament brought about by the use of Sevres china and painted medallions. At that time a full suite of French decorative furniture included six chaises, four fauteuils or heavy armchairs, two bergeres, a canape or couch, a chaise longue, and a footstool.

Much French furniture was imported into this country during the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV. The influence was strong, and we can trace it throughout the whole of the century, French design being noticeable in the work of Chippendale and other famous cabinetmakers who flourished during the last half of the eighteenth century.

Chippendale's work is fully dealt with in chapter xiii. The chief characteristics of his style as relating to chairs may here be briefly pointed out. The commoner form of chair leg was square, but in the more advanced forms cabriole legs terminating with claw-and-ball feet are striking characteristics. Their decoration and carving differed. The cabriole was sometimes ornamented with carved husks ; at others the ram's head or mask upon the knee was conspicuous. The feet varied, too, for the hoof was often superseded by the lion's claw or the eagle's talon. The ribbon back of Chippendale's chairs was capable of much variation, and gave scope to those carvers who were especially skilful in its interpretation. The ornament adopted by Chippendale differed consider-ably, according to the influences he allowed to prevail. The ribbon or looped bows were derived from Louis XIV. influence, whereas the endive-leaf of a later period was frequently in evidence. Shell ornament or coquillage was employed, and is very noticeable on some of the splats. The ribbon pattern was not new, for it was an idea conceived by Jean Berain, who carved knots of ribbon on chair backs as early as 1663.

The Gothic designs and Chinese styles introduced by Thomas Chippendale were altogether different to those made under French influence. They had truly an oriental appearance, but the chairs never became quite as extravagant in style as mirrors, cabinets, and some of the more decorative sundries of Chippendale furniture.

Upholstered chairs in the middle of the eighteenth century were of several kinds. Some of the seat covers were drawn tight and secured by brass nails ; others had loose seats dropping into a frame. The corner or round-about chair was then a novelty, and the upholstered chairs of the grandfather type gave the carver special opportunities to ornament the bold legs and under frame-work. Many of the settees and window seats at that period were influenced by Adam designs. Hepplewhite, whose furniture is referred to more particularly in chapter xiv., had quite a number of variations in the backs of chairs illustrated in his book of patterns. The standard size, which seems to have been very generally adopted at that period, was about 3 ft. 1 in. in height ; to the seat frame it measured 17 in., the depth of the seat itself being also 17 in. It is noteworthy that the legs were never connected by stretchers ; they tapered down-ward, ending in the spade or Marlborough foot. The shield or heart-shaped back was the chief characteristic of Hepplewhite chairs. Some of the armchairs made at that' time had cushioned arms, and nailed upholstery was not infrequently used. A bundle of reeds bound together with ribbon is said to be a strong characteristic form of ' some of the chair legs. Stools were made at that time to match chairs, and they were upholstered with the same materials, or with needlework specially worked for them.

Small window sofas, called window stools, were then fashionable. In Hepplewhite's book he said : " Their size must be regulated by the size of the place where they are to stand ; their heights should not exceed the heights of the chairs."

Much has been written about the designs Sheraton brought out. Immense quantities of chairs after his style must have been made, and they were mostly made in sets. The decorations suggested in Sheraton's book included twisted flutes and fillets, the husk or bell flower, lyre, lotus, vase, column, urn, and patera. The joining of the frames was mostly concealed by one or other of those decorative ornaments. Drawing-room chairs and settees were frequently in accord with the French taste then prevailing. Sheraton upholstered sofas to match the chairs, and two of them went with every suite of chairs.

The chairs made during the early years of the nineteenth century were on the same lines as those prevailing at the close of the eighteenth century. Between the years 1804-1807 Sheraton designed a special chair to celebrate the victory of Trafalgar ; the paintings of the panels being suggestive pictures of battleships. Such mahogany chairs were purchased as late as 1830, for memory of Nelson's great naval victories lingered long.

The French Empire chairs with slightly curved backs and arms terminating in a dolphin's head or the head of a swan were favourites even later. The pouf or puff was fashionable until the middle of the nineteenth century ; but such seats can hardly be called antique, and with later examples of Victorian furniture must be passed over by the collector of old furniture.

The chief characteristics of the chairs illustrated in Figs. 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, and 94 have already been referred to. The mahogany armchair shown in Fig. 87 is a nice old piece in excellent condition. There is always a peculiar charm about the chairs of the latter half of the eighteenth century ; the two shown in Figs. 88 and 89 are of the Hepplewhite style, circa 1770, the slightly lower backs than those of Chippendale standing near them being noticeable. Figs. 90 and 91 which are, of course, Chippendale, are very decorative, the detail of the carving being exceptionally good ; they are of the period circa 1755. Both of these pairs form parts of sets lately in the hands of Messrs Mawer, Ltd.

The next three illustrations represent three good types of eighteenth-century chairs. Fig. 92 is a Hepplewhite chair in mahogany, circa 1790, suggesting the style of the wheel - back which evolved from it ; Fig. 93 is a mahogany chair of Chippendale style, and Fig. 94 another Hepplewhite chair, circa 1775—all three are parts of sets in the possession of Messrs Waring & Gillow Ltd.

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