No one needs to be an expert to buy an antique chair, but knowing its place in history may make you appreciate it all the more. When you buy an antique chair, you’re investing in centuries of furniture-making history.
A Brief History Of Chairs
Once upon a time chairs were reserved for nobility; it was the influential and wealthy that sat upon them. Kings and Lords and those highly regarded in the Church were awarded the privilege, whilst those of a lesser class sat on benches and stools. Originally antique chairs were beautifully crafted out of wood, durable and strong, they lasted a lifetime and beyond. Chairs have been in existence since records began. In 600BC, the Greeks were making square seats with a bar back, embellished with sphinxes. Ancient Egyptians used carved wood, ebony and ivory to make their chairs, while the Romans fashioned their chairs from marble. Chair-making during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368-1644) was characterised by masterful joinery, with single pieces of wood being carved to avoid seams.
In Europe around the same time, Renaissance craftsmen made chairs with large, accommodating arms and seats to suit the billowing fashions of the day. Until the mid 17th century, timber was used (chairs made from the mighty oak have survived longest). When covering became the norm, leather, then velvet and silk were used, and the chair evolved into a small throne. French designs began to have a major influence on chairmakers in England and squat, heavy chairs gave way to more elegant designs, with taller backs. It was after the Renaissance that chairs increased in popularity and became commonplace in most households. During the mid 19th Century, alongside the industrial revolution, chairs became mass-produced in factories. There is a vast array of antique chairs to choose from, which include Corner chairs, Morris chair and Windsor chairs. Antique chairs such as Sheraton, Chippendale and Hepplewhite chairs are highly coveted.
1300-1550 Gothic chairs
Chairs had a panelled construction, often carved, with pointed arches. The Gothic style was revived in Regency and Victorian times.
1558- 1603 Elizabethan chairs
Chairs at the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were plain, solid and functional. The Renaissance later influenced chair design in England and caryatids (support in the form of the female figure), strapwork and split baluster turnings started to be seen. (Turned chairs, an early form of armchair, were made by turners with the use of a lathe.)
1603-1625 Jacobean chairs
Jacobean chairs are known for their geometric mouldings, split balusters and bobbin (balls or beads) turnings. The appeal of the style is enduring and reproduction Jacobean chairs are much sought-after today.
1660-1689 Restoration chairs
This era, sometimes known as Carolean, covers the reigns of Charles II and James II. Chair legs were twisted, scrolls were carved, caned seats and veneering became popular.
1689-1694 William and Mary chairs
Many foreign craftsmen arrived in Britain, bringing new skills. Ebony veneers were the order of the day, while walnut was used to make trumpet-shaped chair legs. By the time William III died in 1702, scrolled legs were developing into cabriole legs (shaped in two curves, the upper is convex, the lower bows inwards).
1702-1714 Queen Anne (also known as Late Baroque or Rococo) chairs
Chairs became smaller, lighter and more comfortable. Lines of feet, legs and arms were curved; ornamentation was often shell-shaped. The seats of Queen Anne chairs were cushioned, feet were padded and the wing-back came onto the scene. The 18th century brought the ‘big three’ furniture makers to prominence: Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.
1714-1830s Georgian chairs
Early Georgian years mainly saw a continuation of Queen Anne style, though heavier. Claw and ball feet began to finish off the cabriole leg.
In mid-Georgian times (1727-1760), mahogany replaced walnut as the chairmakers’ wood of choice. Cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale used the finest fabric to upholster his chairs, which were carved with swirls, leaves and shells. The arms of Chippendale’s wing chairs rolled horizontally, as opposed to Queen Anne wing chairs, which rolled vertically and turned outwards. Chippendale chairs were extremely well-built and command a high price from collectors of antique chairs today.
Late Georgian years (1760-1830s) saw neo-classicism led by architect William Kent, who favoured ovals, vertical lines, columns, urns, gilding and painting, reminiscent of Louis XVI style. Thomas Sheraton provided a more domestic version for the middle classes. Brass, rosewood and zebrawood veneers, and French polishing came into vogue.
18th century antique chairs
The 18th century was a golden time for the chair. Side chairs, wing chairs and armchairs surged in popularity. Backs were stitched with elaborate tapestry scenes and legs were given a ‘cabriole’ shape, resembling the hind legs of an animal, often completed by a claw clasping a ball. In France, the big names in chairmaking were Delanois, Sené and Jacob. In England, furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale was having an impact with his chairs, which were based on the Louis XV model, but less showy. Chippendale’s ribbonback chair with broad seat and Cupid’s-bow back rail is one of his most famous designs. His contemporary George Hepplewhite favoured shields and medallions on his chair backs and along with Thomas Sheraton and Robert Adam, aimed to lighten the structure of the chair.
1837-1901 Victorian chairs
In the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, there was a Gothic and Rococo revival, with balloon-back chairs and asymmetrical chaise longues with cabriole legs. The Great Exhibition (1851) brought Continental craftsmen to London, giving way to a revival of almost all historic styles. Chairs became fringed and deep-buttoned, a la Napoleon III. The middle classes tended to have large families and entertained lavishly, producing a greater need for furniture, which by now was often machine-produced. Victorian chairs, made from durable mahogany and rosewood, are still widely available today. The Arts and Crafts movement (1880-1910), in sympathy with Art Nouveau, promoted a return to handcrafted chairs, with inlaid decoration and rush or leather seats.
1901-1910 Edwardian chairs
Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts furniture remained in high demand, yet by now machinery was in full force and mahogany, walnut, satinwood and oak dining chairs were mass-produced. Dovetail joints were now cut by machine and most pieces were veneered. Quality metal began to be used for decoration.
1918-1939 Modernist and Art Deco chairs
At this time, there was a backlash against the proliferation of cheaply produced but unattractive goods. The period between the wars was marked by a desire to return to simple furniture with clean lines, of the type produced by Ambrose Heal, whose slogan was ‘Nothing Need Be Ugly.’ The store Heal’s is still trading in London’s Tottenham Court Road.
20th century antique chairs
The 20th century brought in a spirit of change, reflected in Art Nouveau, which took its inspiration from the world around it, rather than looking to the past. Architect and designer Charles Rennie Macintosh became renowned for extremely high-backed chairs in glossy black lacquer. The Arts and Crafts movement’s chairs were made from oak, with rush or leather seats.
Art Deco reigned between the First and Second World Wars, with new manufacturing processes allowing designers to experiment with different materials. Sitting on Eileen Gray’s Bibendum chair, formed from semi-circular padded tubes on chrome-plated steel, is described by one fan as ‘like getting a hug that doesn’t stop until you get up.’
No one needs to be an expert to buy an antique chair, but knowing its place in history may make you appreciate it all the more.