Treasures: When chair designs were put through hoops
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
TAKE a look around any of the old balconies of Europe and you will likely observe iron railings which have a pronounced curve outwards. These weren't just for the pleasing aesthetic, but fashioned for a very practical solution to a long-running but not so practical fashion trend.
The article of clothing known as the 'farthingale' was worn by ladies from the 16th century. This was a hooped petticoat formerly worn under women's skirts to extend and shape them.
If the lady of the house wished to go out on the window balcony to take some air, or to see what was happening below in the street, the outwards curve in the balcony held a lower hoop firm and kept her dress at an even keel. Otherwise vertical rails would push the farthingale dress downwards at the front, thus lifting it at the back end facing into the reception room. Obviously, this would be a cause of great embarrassment!
The bulkiness of the farthingale rigged costume had its effect on the design of chairs - because, of course, a lady also couldn't sit down easily with a hooped structure sticking out all around her - and so, the single, or armless, chair was popularised. The name of the costume piece transferred to the chair and hence we call such chairs "farthingales".
In the early 17th century, the woodwork of square upholstered chairs was often covered in a fabric with the padded seats matching the backs. These chairs were very similar to contemporary Flemish and Dutch specimens as shown in the engravings of domestic interiors by Abraham Bosse.
Many of the 17th century padded chairs were made without arms and they were also made in sets. These armless 'farthingales' chairs were carefully designed to accommodate the increasingly unwieldy petticoat with its graduated hoops.
The farthingale dress of Queen Elizabeth I was of enormous size, according to Walpole. Its skeleton was composed was whalebone.
In his work, entitled English Costume, Dion Clayton Calthrop describes Queen Elizabeth's attire in some detail. With the spread and bulk of the voluminous (and more than slightly ridiculous) garment came the appearance of the first single chair. The farthingale had several linen petticoats and a stiffly embroidered undergown, and the chair became a perch, unencumbered by arms.
The farthingale was not the first of the chairs to be made in sets. At the death of the Earl of Leicester in 1590, it was recorded that there were, in the dining chamber, 'three suites of chaires, all ymbrodered, with their stooles and long cushions'. Also, in another inventory of 1600, many chairs without arms are listed as 'covered with blue Kersey', or with 'the same sutelike', showing their upholstery was matching, if not their actual design.
Two farthingale chairs are in the Victoria & Albert Museum, each with their original upholstery. One is made of walnut with the upholstery being fixed to the frame by brass-headed nails. The other is of oak and is covered in turkey work.
After the Restoration, Charles II and his courtiers introduced a new continental type of seating with the use of caning on walnut chairs. The cane came from a type of palm called rattans and were brought to Britain by the East India Company from the Malay Peninsula.
There are few references to caning in early records. However, in 1679, an inventory at Ham House refers to six armchairs with cane seats in the Duke of Lauderdale's dressing-room. In 1691, there was a mention of 'a fine cane table, wrought handsome with a scrolled frame and scrolled pillars'. Originally, caning was in large mesh, but this became finer at the end of the 17th century.
After 1700, caning gradually became obsolete and the London Tradesman of 1747 reported it was 'now almost out of use'. However, Sheraton in his Cabinet Directory of 1803 wrote that 'on the revival of japanning furniture caning began to be brought gradually into use and to a state of improvement'.
The function of a chair being the seat of honour was retained even after the Restoration. When an important personage was present, he would occupy it, and the lesser mortals would sit on stools. Even at court, where the chairs were made in large sets, they continued to be seen as serving to indicate differences in station.
In 1673, when the king ordered a chair to be brought for the Duchess of Modena in the Queen's presence chamber, some 20 ladies of the nobility left the room rather than let her sit in their presence, considering themselves of equal quality to the Duchess of Modena.
Fifty years later, something similar happened at the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales (eldest son of George II). The English princesses refused to sit on stools while Frederick's bride occupied a chair at dinner. They stayed in an ante-chamber until they carried their point.
This continues to the present day when the carver is occupied by the head of the household.