The Antique Windsor Chair
Introduction to Antique Windsor Chairs
The antique Windsor chair stands as an iconic symbol of British craftsmanship and timeless design. Its rich history, rooted in the rural regions of England and Wales, reveals a captivating story of innovation, regional influences, and enduring appeal. In this blog post, we will embark on a journey through time, exploring the development and evolution of antique Windsor chairs, and uncovering the intricate details and craftsmanship that make them cherished pieces in the world of furniture.
Origins and Influences
The exact origins of the Windsor chair remain shrouded in uncertainty. However, historians suggest that it emerged as a development of the West Country, Welsh, and Irish “stick-back” chairs during the 16th century. Wheelwrights of the time began shaping chair spindles akin to the process of crafting wheel spokes, hinting at the early evolution of the Windsor chair design.
Birthplace and Early Production
While the precise birthplace of the Windsor chair remains elusive, it is believed to have made its first appearance in Buckinghamshire, eventually finding its primary production center in High Wycombe. The comb-back Windsor chairs, featuring a distinctive crest resembling a comb, gained popularity during this period. Interestingly, the town of Windsor, Berkshire, played a significant role in the trade between producers and London dealers, lending its name to this distinctive style.
Crafting an antique Windsor chair required the expertise of three specialized craftsmen. The chair bodger, often an itinerant woodworker, would meticulously shape the legs and stretchers using a traditional pole lathe. The benchman, working in small workshops dotted across the countryside, skillfully crafted the seats, backsplats, and other sawn parts. Finally, the framer, an assembly expert, brought together the various components crafted by the bodger and benchman, skillfully assembling and finishing the chair.
Design Innovations and Techniques
In the 18th century, a groundbreaking technique revolutionized Windsor chair production: steam bending. This innovative method allowed craftsmen to shape the characteristic bow of Windsor chairs by bending wooden pieces using steam. The introduction of steam bending was a significant milestone, as it provided the chairs with their signature curves and added structural integrity. Without this technique, the Windsor chair as we know it today would not have emerged.
Regional Styles of Windsor Chairs
Throughout their history, antique Windsor chairs have showcased a remarkable diversity of regional styles and unique features. In the Thames Valley region, where Windsor itself was located, chairs often featured cabriole legs, while West Country chairs boasted a distinctive three-part arm bow and a leg form referred to as a “colt’s foot.” Chairs made in Mendlesham, Suffolk, sported rectangular backrests, setting them apart from their counterparts. The endless combinations of design elements and regional variations make each antique Windsor chair a truly individual work of art.
Enduring Appeal and Collectibility of Windsor Chairs
Collecting antique Windsor chairs is a testament to their enduring appeal and timeless design. Many of these chairs, even after 200 years, are still used on a daily basis, showcasing their remarkable durability and functionality. While most antique Windsor chairs are acquired for furnishing traditional homes rather than for collecting purposes, they offer exceptional value for money. Common types of Windsor chairs can be found at affordable prices, ranging from tens to hundreds of pounds.
For collectors and connoisseurs, the focus lies on chairs with unique and refined designs, as well as those in original and unaltered condition. The traditional English forms of Windsor chairs typically feature either a comb or hoop back with a central decorative splat. In comb-backed chairs, the upright spindles forming the backrest are inserted into a simple bar at the top, while hoop-back chairs have uprights anchored by a bent arch of wood jointed into the seat or arms. The arms of these chairs are typically crafted from a single length of wood, skillfully bent into a graceful bow shape.
Beyond the common types, there is always a special interest in acquiring more unusual antique Windsor pieces, such as settees, high chairs, or rockers. These unique variations add an extra layer of intrigue to a collector’s ensemble. When it comes to the market for Windsor chairs, there is a wide range of options available. Common types of Windsor chairs, including simple slat-backed designs that were mass-produced for institutional use, can be purchased at reasonable prices, making them excellent choices for everyday seating.
For standard country chairs in comb or hoop-back styles, prices usually start at £200 and go up from there, depending on factors such as form, color, and patination. Exceptional examples of these chairs can be priced at £1000 or more, reflecting their outstanding quality and desirability.
At the top end of the market, there are exceptional chairs and sets that have fetched prices of £10,000 or even higher. These pieces often represent more sophisticated and rare designs, such as the renowned ‘Strawberry Hill Gothick’ chairs from the late 18th century. These chairs feature backs shaped like pointed gothic arches, elegantly contoured seats, and beautifully crafted cabriole legs. They are highly sought after by collectors and are considered among the most coveted of all Windsor chairs.
The evolution of antique Windsor chairs in England and Wales showcases the ingenuity and craftsmanship of generations of skilled artisans. From their diverse styles and innovative techniques, each Windsor chair tells a unique story. As these chairs continue to capture the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts worldwide, their legacy as iconic symbols of British furniture design remains unshakable.
The English Regional Chair by Bernard D. Cotton, Antique Collectors’ Club. ISBN 1 85149 023
The English Windsor Chair by Thomas Crispin, Alan Sutton. ISBN 0 7509 0117 9
Windsor Chairs by Michael Harding-Hill, Antique Collectors’ Club. ISBN 1 85149 4294