- History of the chair
chairis of extreme antiquity, although for many centuries and indeed for thousands of years it was an article of state and dignity rather than an article of ordinary use. “The chair” is still extensively used as the emblem of authority in the British House of Commonsand in public meetings. It was not, in fact, until the 16th century that it became common anywhere. The chest, the bench and the stoolwere until then the ordinary seats of everyday life, and the number of chairs which have survived from an earlier date is exceedingly limited; most of such examples are of ecclesiastical or seigneurial origin. Our knowledge of the chairs of remote antiquity is derived almost entirely from monuments, sculpture and paintings. A few actual examples exist in the British Museum, in the Egyptian museum at Cairo, and elsewhere.
Egyptchairs appear to have been of great richness and splendour. Fashioned of ebonyand ivory, or of carved and gilded wood, they were covered with costly materials and supported upon representations of the legs of beasts or the figures of captives. An arm-chair in fine preservation found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kingsis astonishingly similar, even in small details, to that "Empire" style which followed Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The earliest monuments of Ninevehrepresent a chair without a back but with tastefully carved legs ending in lions’ claws or bulls’ hoofs. Others are supported by figures in the nature of caryatides or by animals.
Greek and Roman chairs
The earliest known form of Greek chair dates back to six or seven centuries BCE. On the frieze of the Parthenon
Zeusoccupies a square seat with a bar-back and thick turned legs; it is ornamented with winged sphinxes and the feet of beasts. The characteristic Roman chairs were of marble, also adorned with sphinxes. The curule chairwas originally very similar in form to the modern folding chair, but eventually received a good deal of ornament. The most famous of the very few chairs which have come down from a remote antiquity is the reputed chair of St. Peterin St Peter's Basilicaat Rome. The wooden portions are much decayed, but it would appear to be Byzantine work of the 6th century, and to be really an ancient sedia gestatoria. It has ivory carvings representing the labours of Hercules. A few pieces of an earlier oaken chair have been let in; the existing one, Gregoroviussays, is of acacia wood. The legend that this was the curile chair of the senator Pudens is necessarily apocryphal. It is not, as is popularly supposed, enclosed in Gian Lorenzo Bernini's bronze chair, but is kept under triple lock and exhibited only once in a century. Byzantium, like Greece and Rome, affected the curule form of chair, and in addition to lions’ heads and winged figures of Victory (or Nike) and dolphin-shaped arms used also the lyre-back which has been made familiar by the pseudo-classical revival of the end of the 18th century.
The chair of
Maximianin the cathedral of Ravennais believed to date from the middle of the 6th century. It is of marble, round, with a high back, and is carved in high relief with figures of saints and scenes from the Gospels—the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt and the baptism of Christ. The smaller spaces are filled with carvings of animals, birds, flowers and foliated ornament. The Chair of St. Augustine, dating from at least the early thirteenth century [ [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,872540,00.html The 100th Canterbury - TIME ] ] is one of the oldest cathedrae still in use.
Another very ancient seat is the so-called “Chair of Dagobert” in the
Louvre. It is of cast bronze, sharpened with the chisel and partially gilt; it is of the curule or faldstool type and supported upon legs terminating in the heads and feet of animals. The seat, which was probably of leather, has disappeared. Its attribution depends entirely upon the statement of Suger, abbot of St Denis in the 12th century, who added a back and arms. Its age has been much discussed, but Viollet-le-Duc dated it to early Merovingiantimes, and it may in any case be taken as the oldest faldstool in existence.
To the same generic type belongs the famous abbots’ chair of Glastonbury; such chairs might readily be taken to pieces when their owners travelled. The faldisterium in time acquired arms and a back, while retaining its folding shape. The most famous, as well as the most, ancient, English chair is that made at the end of the l3th century for Edward I., in which most subsequent monarchs have been crowned. It is of an architectural type and of oak, and was covered with gilded gesso which long since disappeared.
Passing from these historic examples we find the chair monopolized by the ruler, lay or ecclesiastical, to a comparatively late date. As the seat of authority it stood at the head of the lord’s table, on his dais, by the side of his bed. The seigneurial chair, commoner in
Franceand the Netherlandsthan in England, is a very interesting type, approximating in many respects to the episcopal or abbatial throne or stall. It early acquired a very high back and sometimes had a canopy. Arms were invariable, and the lower part was closed in with panelled or carved front and sides—the seat, indeed, was often hinged and sometimes closed with a key.
That we are still said to sit “in” an arm-chair and “on" other kinds of chairs is a reminiscence of the time when the lord or seigneur sat “in his chair.” These throne-like seats were always architectural in character, and as Gothic feeling waned took the distinctive characteristics of Renaissance work.
Tang Dynasty(618–907 AD), the predominant sitting positions in the Han Chineseculture and neighboring cultures such as the Japanese Culture, Korean Culture, Turkic Culturein Central Asia and Tai Kadai Culturesto the southwest were the seizaand lotus positionon the floor or sitting mats. A remarkable change happened during the Tang period, a period when China was in frequent contact with the Near East and other civilizations across Eurasia; thus resulted in many cultural exchanges. This smaller, mobile folded stool developed into a more stationary, stately chair with high back. Higher seats first started to appear amongst the Chinese elite and their usage soon spread to all levels of society. By the 12th century seating on the floor was rare in China, unlike in other Asian countries where the custom continued, and the chair or more commonly the stool was used in the vast majority of houses throughout the country. The sedan chairwas used at least as early as the Song Dynasty(960–1279) to transport nobles by slaves or lower ranking workers.
In Europe, it was owing in great measure to the
Renaissancethat the chair ceased to be a privilege of state, and became the customary companion of whoever could afford to buy it. Once the idea of privilege faded the chair speedily came into general use. We find almost at once began to reflect the fashions of the hour. No piece of furniture has ever been so close an index to sumptuary changes. It has varied in size, shape and sturdiness with the fashion not only of women’s dress but of men’s also. Thus the chair which was not, even with its arms purposely suppressed, too ample during the several reigns of some form or other of hoops and farthingale, became monstrous when these protuberances disappeared. Again, the costly laced coats of the dandy of the 18th and early 19th centuries were so threatened by the ordinary form of seat that a “conversation chair” was devised, which enabled the buck and the ruffler to sit with his face to the back, his valuable tails hanging unimpeded over the front. The early chair almost invariably had arms, and it was not until towards the close of the 16th century that the smaller form grew common.
The majority of the chairs of all countries until the middle of the 17th century were of
oakwithout upholstery, and when it became customary to cushion them, leatherwas sometimes employed; subsequently velvetand silkwere extensively used, and at a later period cheaper and often more durable materials. . In Abraham Bosse's engraving ("illustration, left"), a stylish Parisian musical party of about 1630 have pulled their low chairs (called "backstools" in contemporary England) away from the tapestry-hung walls where they were normally lined up. The padded back panels were covered with needlework panels to suit the tapestries, or in other settings with leather, plain or tooled. Plain cloth across the back hid the wooden framing. Stools with column legs complement the set, but aren't "en suite". In seventeenth century Francethe bergerechair became fashionable among the nobility and was often made of walnut.
Leather was not infrequently used even for the costly and elaborate chairs of the faldstool form—occasionally sheathed in thin plates of silver—which
Venicesent all over Europe. To this day, indeed, leather is one of the most frequently employed materials for chair covering. The outstanding characteristic of most chairs until the middle of the 17th century was massiveness and solidity. Being usually made of oak, they were of considerable weight, and it was not until the introduction of the handsome Louis XIII chairs with cane backs and seats that either weight or solidity was reduced.
Although English furniture derives so extensively from foreign and especially French and Italian models, the earlier forms of English chairs owed but little to exotic influences. This was especially the case down to the end of the Tudor period, after which France began to set her mark upon the British chair. The squat variety, with heavy and sombre back, carved like a piece of panelling, gave place to a taller, more slender, and more elegant form, in which the framework only was carved, and attempts were made at ornament in new directions. The stretcher especially offered opportunities which were not lost upon the cabinet-makers of the Restoration. From a mere uncompromising cross-bar intended to strengthen the construction it blossomed, almost suddenly, into an elaborate scroll-work or an exceedingly graceful semicircular ornament connecting all four legs, with a vase-shaped knob in the centre. The arms and legs of chairs of this period were scrolled, the splats of the back often showing a rich arrangement of spirals and scrolls. This most decorative of all types appears to have been popularized in England by the cavaliers who had been in exile with Charles II, and had become familiar with it in the north-western parts of the European continent. During the reign of
William and Marythese charming forms degenerated into something much stiffer and more rectangular, with a solid, more or less fiddle-shaped splat and a cabriole leg with pad feet. The more ornamental examples had cane seats and ill-proportioned cane backs. From these forms was gradually developed the Chippendale chair, with its elaborately interlaced back, its graceful arms and square or cabriole legs, the latter terminating in the claw and ball or the pad foot. George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheratonand Robert Adamall aimed at lightening the chair, which, even in the master hands of Thomas Chippendale, remained comparatively heavy. The endeavour succeeded, and the modern chair is everywhere comparatively slight.
18th century chairs
Informal, "galante" manners and a new half-reclining posture that replaced the former bolt-upright demeanor of court and aristocracy in the age of Louis XIV went hand-in-hand with new commodious seat furniture, developed in Paris about 1720 ("illustration, right"). The new
Rococochairs were upholstered "à chassis", on removable frames secured by clips, so that changes from winter to summer furniture could be effected without recourse to the "menuisier". Off-season upholstered frames were stored in the "garde-meuble". These early Louis XV chairs have backs upholstered "à la reine", with the back in a flat panel that was ordinarily placed squared to the wall, so that the top-rails' curves complemented those of the "boiserie" panels behind them.
In the illustration, the symmetrical cusped and scrolling seatrails that flow into stubby
cabriole legs of these comfortable low armchairs ("chauffeuses") have their direct origins in Chinese lacquer tables (not chairs).
French fashions in chairs, as with everything else, radiated from Paris. From the late 1720s, fashionable "Louis XV" French chairs were constructed without stretchers, which interfered with the unified flow of curved seatrails into cabriole legs that generally ended in scroll feet. According to strict
guildregulations in force until the Revolution, French chairmaking was the business of the "menuisier" alone, whose craft was conjoined with that of the upholsterer ("huissier"), both of whom specialized in seat-furniture-making in Paris. A range of specialised seats were developed and given fanciful names, of which the comfortable " bergère" ("shepherdess") is the most familiar. Walnut and beech were the characteristics woods employed; finishes were painted in clear light tones en suite with wall panelling, gilded (sometimes "rechampi en blanc") or left in the natural color ("á la capuchine"), in which case walnut was the timber used. Fruitwoods were popular for chairmaking in the provinces, where the menuisier might also be called upon to provide carved and moulded "boiseries" for rooms. Lyon, Bordeaux and Liège all produced characteristic variations on Paris models between ca. 1725 and 1780.
In the late 1760s in Paris the first Parisian neoclassical chairs were made, even before the accession of Louis XVI, whose name is attached to the first phases of the style. Straight tapering fluted legs joined by a block at the seat rail and architectural mouldings, characterize the style, in which each element is a discrete entity. Louis Delanois, Jean-Claude Sené and Georges Jacob were three leading chairmakers in the 1770s and 80s. The 18th century was, indeed, the golden age of the chair, especially in France and England, between which there was considerable give and take of ideas. Even Diderot could not refrain from writing of them in his
Encyclopédie. The typical Louis Seize chair, oval-backed and ample of seat, with descending arms and round-reeded legs, covered in Beauvais or some such gay tapestry woven with Boucheror Watteau-like scenes, is a very gracious object, in which the period reached its high-water mark. The Empire brought in squat and squabby shapes, comfortable enough no doubt, but entirely destitute of inspiration. English Empire chairs were often heavier and more sombre than those of French design.
Meanwhile, in the
United States, Thomas Jeffersoninvented the swivel chair.
19th century chairs
art nouveauschool produced chairs of simplicity. The Arts and Crafts movementproduced heavy, straight lined, minimally ornamented chairs.
20th century and modern chairs
The 20th century saw an increasing use of technology in chair construction with such things as all-metal folding chairs, metal-legged chairs, the Slumber Chair, moulded plastic chairs and ergonomic chairs, recliner chairs (easy chair),
butterfly chair, beanbag chairs, the egg or pod chair, plywood and laminate wood chairs, and massage chairs.
* [http://www.antike-tischkultur.de/roemmoebels.html Antike Tisch-Kultur.de (German)] - Galleries of ancient chairs
* [http://www.shimu.co.uk/chinese_furniture.cfm History of Chinese Furniture]
* [http://www.vads.ahds.ac.uk/collections/FPC.html Frederick Parker Chair Collection] - online collection, demonstrating 350 years of British chair design and manufacture.
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