Among the more popular chairs that pass through Leonard Joel are those of traditional English country types – Windsor chairs, ladder-back and spindle-back chairs, and others related. The development and longevity of these types owes much to local, often vernacular, traditions, consistent with their rustic image in the popular imagination, but their history is not quite so simple.
Perhaps surprisingly given how unremarkable it is today, the presence of chairs in more modest households is a relatively recent development. While chairs of various forms are of great antiquity, they were, in all cultures, the preserve of those of higher status – rulers and senior officials and clerics (an historical association reflected in the fact that the Roman word for armchair – ‘cathedra’ – was originally associated with imperial authority and then adopted by the early Christian church as the seat of authority of a bishop). For everybody else, seat furniture, where it existed at all, was more rudimentary – stools and benches.
In England, chairs remained rare well into the seventeenth century, until demand from the developing professional and merchant middle class, combined with the arrival of craftsman and fashions from Europe, began to broaden the market for furniture. For the first time, well-made chairs, visually appealing with turned and shaped parts, were becoming commercially available, albeit still influenced in form by grander chair types. While the connection might not be obvious, a few surviving examples of late seventeenth century comb-back chairs show that it was from the Dutch and French influenced turned oak and walnut chairs of this period that sprang the earliest comb-back and spindle-back chairs that would evolve into the classic English country types.
Perhaps also surprising, but reflecting the development of country chairs from more elevated forms, is the fact that the earliest Windsor-type chairs served not as humble cottage furniture but as less formal furniture for the well-to-do; lighter, more knock-about, and so often moved around as required, including for outdoor use. It is for this reason that Windsor chairs of the middle decades of the eighteenth century incorporated details drawn from more refined chairs, such as elegantly shaped top-rails and splats and cabriole supports. Early Windsor chairs were often painted, quite different from the warmly-patinated elm and beech long since associated with the type.
It was not until later in the eighteenth century that the Windsor chair evolved further into the simpler form most commonly encountered today, with its hooped back and splayed turned supports. While little evidence survives by which to trace this evolution, it seems clearly to have been driven by the need to supply a rapidly expanding population through southern England and beyond. Smaller chair-making operations set up earlier in the century in Buckinghamshire, close to the beech and elm woods of the Chiltern Hills (across the Thames from Windsor), were now also able to take advantage of their proximity to both the London market and the main road heading north-west to Oxford, and Birmingham. Another resource the chair-making firms of the Chilterns also had close at hand were simple craftsmen supplying the parts for chairs, including those (later known as ‘bodgers’) who set up camp literally amidst the trees to shape and shave spindles and other parts from felled trees – making huge stacks in the woods of such parts – and turners working in their cottages to produce legs and other parts.
It is from the close combination of country craftsmanship working in vernacular traditions and reliance on natural resources close at hand that arises the popular image of the Windsor chair as a classic cottage type – some way removed from its origins. From the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth century, countless thousands of Windsor chairs were made in this way, sold far and wide throughout England and beyond, often combining with other local chair-making traditions to influence the development of regional Windsor types of particular character.
At auction today, good, solid late eighteenth and nineteenth century Windsor chairs can be had for just a few hundred dollars, ideal for adding a warm and useful rustic note to any interior.
DAVID PARSONS / Head of Private Estates and Valuations
Banner Image: An Elm Windsor Chair, Mid-19th century | $400-600