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History of Chairs, Stools, & Settees in England

Early Chairs & Stools

Chairs developed from stools and stools from fixed benches, and the clumsy smoothing of some rough-hewn section of a fallen tree, was perhaps the starting point of furniture designing. A fresh outlet was provided for the spirit of craftsmanship that had hitherto been devoted to the making of pottery, jewellery and weapons, and so began the progress that was destined to be marked by many masterpieces throughout the centuries. The spirit has lasted through generations and, although individual craft-pride and joy of good workmanship have lapsed during the last hundred years, it will survive the set-back caused by the wave of mechanical production.

There are no sharp dividing lines between periods that adjoin: usually there is a transitional period when styles merge, and even when fashion or fancy has favoured the use of different woods the lines of the superseded mode may be traced although resemblance grows fainter in time. The Gothic influence faded and the first waves of the Renaissance brought fresh designs of classic foundation, and they went to the making of Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture.

Seventeenth Century Chairs

At the dawn of the seventeenth century few traces of Gothic influence remained, and when Jacobean chairs were replaced by the austere simplicity of Puritan designs in Cromwellian chairs, ornament was temporarily banished, though severity of line was, curiously enough, combined with increased comfort, because leather seats and backs were introduced extensively and fastened to the wooden framework with little rows of dome-headed nails. A fresh ideal of form had been establishing itself, and a lot of attention was given to the turning of legs and under-framing, though turning was not a new departure, for many sixteenth century chairs were made up of turned spindles. Presently the "barley-sugar" twist appeared not only on chair rails and legs but on the under-framing of tables and dressers.

The baroque chairs of the Restoration are fundamentally different from the Puritan designs, for they show foreign influence, and indicate different customs and manners. To possess a really good example of a Stuart chair is to be fortunate. The simpler varieties may still be found occasionally, and there are some good copies made, although they lack the subtle touch of the original workmen. The extensive use of velvet on chair seats and backs began a wide movement against unnecessary discomfort, and opened up a big field for furniture designers. Upholstery became general, and except in the very simplest type of cottage furniture it acquired some importance in chair design.

Definite dates cannot be assigned to such developments ; velvet was the favourite covering and was often used on plain types of oak chairs, but the fashion of covering chairs, stools and beds entirely in damask or velvet appears to have been established in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

This is a period of good, strong, bold workmanship, and the frames of chairs and settees were carved either in wood or gesso. The turning and carving executed in the seventeenth century prepared the way for the cabriole leg with its beautiful line and graceful effect. Probably this design was introduced from France or Holland during the reign of William and Mary, but its origin is ancient and is sometimes attributed to Egypt or China. Roman tables and tripods had legs imitating those of animals and certainly suggesting the curves of the cabriole leg by their design.

Eighteenth Century Chairs

Dutch taste, so dominant during the period of William and Mary, favoured curves, and the opening of the eighteenth century saw the softening of all hard outline. The Puritan ideal had become extinct, and the William & Mary chairs that preserved the straight back and much of the general appearance of the Stuart furniture gave place to the lighter, more comfortable, and more graceful Queen Anne chairs of walnut that have immortalised the name of Queen Anne because of their appearance in her reign.

William and Mary stools showed Dutch influence, with very curly lines, unknown in Stuart designs, and they were probably used a great deal during this period, for chairs were passing through a phase of intense rigidity and excessive discomfort. A William and Mary stool is a good seat for a dressing-table, where a stool is often far more satisfactory than a chair.

Oriental designs influenced the opening decades of the eighteenth century, and lacquer presented a fresh medium for the expression of taste. It is at this point of chair development that we may obtain practical ideas for furnishing.

The transitional period between the perfect Queen Anne type and its eventual development by Chippendale in mahogany produced some attractive models. Simple chairs in mahogany with Queen Anne backs, and square legs and underframing, with perhaps a line of moulding running down the outside edge of the legs, and seats upholstered in some silk material, were characteristic of the early Georgian days. By the time mahogany became fashionable gilded furniture was entirely discarded.

Nineteenth Century Chairs

The history of chairs and of most furniture in the nineteenth century is a bad page in the record of design. To describe it we may paraphrase Bacon, for it seems to have been a common and enthusiastic belief after 1830 or thereabouts that "Chairs were made to sit on ; never to look at", though there were hundreds of existing designs to prove that grace and comfort could be combined.

With the examples of such master craftsmen as Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite it is inconceivable that taste declined to the level in which squat, formless creations in mahogany, beautifully made, it is true, but hideous beyond describing, were tolerated and even sought after. The return to the antique that came with the closing decades of the nineteenth century has taken us back two hundred years and more, away to Tudor days, when Gothic influence was still strong in the minds of craftsmen, and chairs and stools had a distinct ecclesiastical suggestion about them. Dear to the hearts of collectors are those strongly-fashioned chairs in good, solid English oak, toned to the rich, warm hue that has an especial charm in the English climate.

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