The history of chairs

The chief characteristic of the early chair, of which Fig. 1 is a typical example, was its solidity of construction, The uplights and rails were heavy and the interspaces filled With panelling, while the under portion below the seat was contrived to form a box. The seat or the back or front was hinged to give access to this box. Its double purpose serves to illustrate the scarcity of household pieces.

1. Heavy Panelled Chair with box under the seat. The back below the seat acts as a door. (Oak.) Tudor Period.

First half of 16th Century.

Fig 2. shows the development of the same motif of construction to a lighter form. This type made its appearance just prior to the Elizabethan era and continued with but short alterations until late in the 17th century.

2. Panelled back type with carving in the form of conventional foliage. (Oak.) Elizabethan Period.

Second half of 16th Century.

With the advent of the Stuart regime a great change took place in the national costume, namely, the wearing of the farthingale by women, and stuffed doublets and hose by men, which resulted in the advent of the chair without arms. The upholstered seats began to make their appearance as seen in Fig. 3.

3. Farthingale Chair with upholstered seat and back. (Oak.) James I Period.

Early 17th Century.

The chairs of the Charles I period were similar in design and proportion, although various new forms were evolved. The low arms seen in Fig. 4 were designed with a view to the better accommodation of the farthingale.

4. Upholstered Jacobean Chair with twist turned legs and stretchers. (Walnut.) Charles I Period.

Early 17th Century:

The austere and rigorous feeling dominant throughout the Cromwellian period showed its influence strongly in the chairs of the time. Any superfluous enrichment was avoided with the exception that the legs and arms were often bobbin-turned, as shown in Fig. 5.

5. Cromwellian Chair with leather covering and bobbin legs. (Oak.) Commonwealth Period.

Middle 17th Century.

The Yorkshire or Derbyshire chair shown in Fig. 6 is typical of a kind that was made during the 17th century. These chairs were quite distinct in themselves, and were the subjects of fine carving. The split turnings seen on the uprights of the back, and the small pendants are common features in these chairs.

6. Yorkshire or Derbyshire Chair with carved back and applied split turnings. (Oak.) Jacobean Period.

Second half of 17th Century.

With the reinstatement of the Royal Family in the person of Charles II, the severity of the Commonwealth was changed to luxury. Chairs were now usually made in walnut and profusely ornamented with carving, especially the under-stretcher and backs, which were now made rather taller.

7. Jacobean Chair with acanthus leaf carving. A crown is carved on the stretcher and top rail m honour of the Restoration. Walnut.) Charles II Period.

Middle 17th Century.

The height of the backs was still more marked in William and Mary chairs, as shown in Fig. 8. The scrolled legs were the origin of the cabriole leg, which became a great feature of the later chairs.

8. Tall back Chair evolved from the type shown in No. 7. The acanthus leaf carving is replaced by scroll work, a typical feature of the period. (Walnut.) William and Mary Period.

Second half of 17th Century.

In Fig. 9 we see the development of the cabriole leg with the claw and ball foot. The earlier types terminated at the bottom with the club foot. The back, with its rounded top and urn-shaped splat, is of a very usual type, and the shaped uprights show how the use of walnut gave greater scope for curved work than oak.

9. Queen Anne Chair with cabriole legs and claw and ball feet. Note the omission of the lower stretchers. Rounded back and urn - shaped splat. (Walnut.)

Early 18th Century.

Although the rounded back continued for some years after the reign of Queen Anne, the general tendency was to squareness, as shown in Fig. 1O. The urn-shaped splat was still retained, although it was now pierced, and the seat rails carved with a Greek key ornament.

10. Georgian Chair. The urn splat is pierced and the back more square. (Mahogany.)

First half of 18th Century,

In many of his early chairs Chippendale used the rounded back and drew inspiration from many other Queen Anne motifs. Much of his work also shows French influence. The example illustrated in Fig. 11 is one of his famous rib and-back designs, in which it will be seen that the urn shape has completely disappeared from the splat.

11. Riband-back Chippendale Chair with cabriole legs, carved in the form of acanthus leafage. (Mahogany.)

Middle 18th Century.

Another style used by Chippendale was Gothic. The influence is particularly noticeable in the treatment of the splat, which is pierced in the form of Gothic tracery, as in Fig. 12.

12. Gothic Chippendale Chair with pierced splat and square legs. (Mahogany.)

Middle 18th Century.

A great many chairs were also treated in the Chinese style, this being easily identified by the introduction of lattice work and often carved imitations of the Chinese pagoda.

Another notable designer of the 18th century was Hepplewhite. His chairs were invariably graceful and refined. The backs were, as a rule, either shield-shaped, as in Fig. 13, or oval, and the top rail "humped," as shown in the illustration.

13. Shield-back Chair with serpentine shaped front rail. Hepplewhite. (Mahogany.)

Second half of 18th Century.

An Adam chair of the wheel-back variety is shown in Fig. 14. Robert Adam's work was classical in its treatment and indicates his profession as an architect. His designs were carried out by contemporary craftsmen, and it is interesting to observe how his work was affected by the methods of treatment employed by them.

14. Wheel - back Chair with semi-rounded seat. Adam. (Mahogany.)

Second half of 18th Century.

Sheraton's chair designs are innumerable. Figs. 15 and 16 are typical of his work. His designs were extremely light, and usually carried out in satinwood or mahogany. The legs were either square tapered or turned or, in some cases, toward the end of the period, curved inwards to the back. In some of his pieces the legs were made to project above the seat and were rounded over.

15. Caned-back Chair with large rake to the back. Sheraton. (Mahogany.)

Second half of 18th Century.

16. Light Chair with tapered legs and carved vase in back. Sheraton. (Satinwood.)

Second half of 18th Century.


English Furniture at a Glance by Charles H Hayward. London: The Architectural Press, 1924.

© Furniture Ferret 2023