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Taking the Chair

A look at the history and developement of chairs in Scotland.

In their earliest form chairs were a symbol of authority and were used by Monarchs and their consorts, nobles and religious grandees in the principal rooms for all purposes including dining.

Benches, settles and forms were the seats used by lesser folk. Chairs made before 1700 were known as joined chairs, made of oak due to its strength, united by joins often with a mortice and tenon construction held together by dowels, glue not being used until the 18th century.

An example of this is the Caquetoire type armchair, a French design adopted by Scottish craftsmen in the final quarter of the 16th Century. This chair has the initials AB of Alexander Burnett, who married Catherine Gordon and built Crathes Castle, and is considered to date around 1597 when the building at Crathes was completed. It may well have been made by the same craftsmen who made the remarkable series of chairs belonging to the Deacon of the Incorporated Trades at Trinity Hall, Aberdeen.

During the 17th century such chairs evolved with the backs becoming wider and lower, the panels often decorated with carving of floral form, lozenges or with tree and scrolling foliate designs.

By 1685 influences from the Netherlands brought a totally new style of chair. These lighter chairs made of walnut or beech ebonised to simulate the fashionable and very expensive ebony had turned supports and carved cresting with cane back panels below, the seats were upholstered in costly velvets with elaborate tassels or passmentieres. The fashion for such chairs was short lived partly due to the fact that structurally the design was unsound and not really suitable for daily use.

The 18th century has to be the heyday of the dining chair and to the day the styles are named after monarchs, e.g. Queen Anne, George III, or a designer including such notables as Chippendale and Hepplewhite.

The woods and types of decoration also altered with the century, oak was considered déclassé and relegated to the humble home. The century started off with walnut being the most fashionable wood, liked by chair makers for its fine grain and the ease with which it could be carved, ideal for the elegant Queen Anne chair with its solid vase shaped splat back. Such splats were sometimes veneered with burr walnut, a decorative wood used in layers from either burs on the walnut tree or its root ball.

The legs of the chairs too had changed, from the turned type popular during the 17th century to the elegant cabriole leg where the leg curves gently down, carved to the knee with shell or acanthus, to perhaps a simple pad foot or the bolder ball and claw.

The gilding of chairs during the 18th century was restricted to those for the drawing room though similar designs were used in the dining room. By the 1740s mahogany had become the most fashionable wood partly due to its practical qualities, its colour, strength and cabinet making qualities.

The rectangular back chair is typical of a design used from 1740-65 and may have been used in either room. This chair’s delight however is in the rare survival of the needlework, embroidered in gros and petit point by the Countess of Mornington.

Owners and their staff in the 18th century were just as concerned as we are with the effect of sunlight on fabrics and would always have slip covers made of canvas or cotton to go over the upholstery to protect it when not in use.

The name of Thomas Chippendale, 1718-79, is one of the most influential of all furniture designers. A highly successful businessman with workshops in St Martin’s Lane , London, employing more that 100 people, he supplied both fine furniture to the nobility as well as more mundane pieces, even coffins.

Hi influence in posterity was guaranteed by the publication of his ‘Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director’, first published in 1754 and running to three editions with many subscribers in Scotland, including the Earl of Dumfries and the Duke of Atholl. Shown is a dining chair (to the right of the sideboard) which is typical of Chippendale design. Chippendale’s success as a publisher was born really only as a result of taking fashionable and popular designs and improving upon them, he was not the originator of this design.

Likewise, the name of George Hepplewhite is renowned because of his ‘Cabinet and Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide’, published in 1788 which also ran to three editions. An exponent of the newly fashionable Neo Classical style he drew on many of Robert and William Adam’s designs and brought them to the public’s attention. While he was not a very successful cabinet maker, his designs for dining chairs with oval and shield shaped backs were extremely influential and are clearly visible around the dining table shown from Leith Hall.

The popularity of the designs of the 18th century chair makers remain with us to this day, frequently reproduced and available in the shops, even if many are manufactured in the Philippines and other far eastern countries rather than British workshops.

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