2 June 2021
Visitor Assistant Andrew Smith takes a closer look at some of the furniture in the Kettle’s Yard House.
There’s a lot to take in when you enter Kettle’s Yard House. When visitors first come into the confined space of Jim Ede’s sitting room they find themselves subjected to a vast array of objects and artworks. Often the first thing to attract their attention is this Orkney chair.
In the good old, pre-Covid, days we could invite them to sit;
“Really? Is that allowed?”
“Of course it is, we’re not the National Trust!” And we could go on to explain how some of the artworks were arranged to be best seen from a sitting position.
“Sitting here you’ll suddenly notice that you’re seeing the Christopher Wood flower painting at the perfect eye line.”
Jim Ede, in his ‘Notes on the Inventory’ describes this chair as a ‘gift of Helen Ede’, elsewhere we find that it was collected in 1906, ‘on the island’, by Helen’s family. But it must have been old even then.
Orkney chairs developed over many years from low round stools of simple construction. In the days of inadequate chimneys, low stools allowed the user to sit below the worst of the hearth smoke. Woven straw backs were later added to provide protection from drafts. The square seat became standard in the 19th century. Many of these chairs were made by crofters for their own use, and so the build quality was often functional but crude. Since there was no supply of timber on the Islands, Orkney furniture was constructed using reclaimed wood that might previously have been part of a boat or a building. In many cases, driftwood was used. Nothing was wasted, each piece of furniture was individual; its design dictated by the materials that were available. A quick glance at our chair shows that all of its timber components have had a previous life.
By the mid-19th century chair making was becoming professionalised, and a maker by the name of David Kirkness of Kirkwall is credited with developing what is now the archetypal Orkney chair. His chairs incorporated storage; usually a drawer under the seat. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Orkney chair became quite fashionable, to the extent that in 1909 Liberty’s of London were ordering 40 a month.
The construction of the Kettle’s Yard chair certainly falls into the ‘functional but crude’ category. A very simple base, onto which arm and back supports are fixed. The infill timber on the right arm doesn’t fit; it’s too small. The soft wood of the left arm is well worn, beautifully exposing the grain of the wood. The front edge of the timber seat is scarred from previous usage.
Photographs in ‘A Way of Life’, and in our online virtual tour show that this chair originally had a deeply rounded back. A feature that would indicate that this chair originated on one of the smaller, outer islands, and was probably made during the first half of the 19th century. It would have been built by a crofter for their own use. Over a period of more than 150 years the whole chair has developed what antique dealers refer to as ‘patina’. At some stage, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago the back was replaced. The new back is subtly different, lighter in colour and more squared-off in a design that has now become the accepted standard. But this design belongs to a later period.
This photograph is a still from our virtual tour. It shows the relationship between the original rounded chair back and the basket of pebbles, the round table, and the semi-circular bay window.
The current back is more robust than the aged original, and probably more comfortable and supportive. The current back is another chapter in the story of the chair.