17 August 2020
Visitor Assistant Andrew Smith takes a closer look at some of the furniture in the Kettle’s Yard House.
Three chairs, carefully grouped together in the lower extension could, at first glance, be taken as a matching set. But you soon notice differences. For example, two of them have simple ‘H’ shaped stretchers*, the third has a ‘crinoline’ or ‘cow horn’ stretcher. That third chair has more detailed carving around the ‘wheel’ in the centre back splat. And there are differences in the turned patterns of the legs.
Both chairs with ‘H’ stretchers have strengthening pieces added behind the wheel motif, suggesting damage to the back splat. The front legs feature a triple ring turning which indicates that they were produced no earlier than 1880. (So, when Jim acquired them, they weren’t quite old enough to be officially considered ‘antiques’!) The ‘crinoline’ stretcher on the chair at the centre of this group was popular up to the Regency period, indicating construction in the early 1800s.
Looking at the design and construction of these chairs we can be pretty sure that all three were made in or around the High Wycombe area. It’s an area that became very important in the manufacture of furniture. In the 1860s High Wycombe and its environs was producing almost 5,000 Windsor chairs a day. The ‘wheel back’ was hugely popular and it has been estimated that 75% of Windsor chairs made over the last 150 years used this pattern. Production was split into three specialist trades; ‘bodgers’ who lived and worked in the forest and used pole lathes to turn legs and spindles from ‘green’, or freshly cut timber, typically beech. A ‘benchman’ produced the sawn and carved components, the seat, back splat and sometimes arms. Lastly, the ‘framer’ fitted and assembled the components into the completed chair.
The seat is usually made using elm, a hard wood that resists splitting; especially important when so many holes and mortice joints are close to the edge. Beech is used for the turned parts because it shapes easily when newly felled. And for the back bow, ash is typically used because it lends itself to steam forming. (Yew was sometimes used on more expensive chairs.)
In typical Jim Ede fashion these three chairs are arranged together in a conversational style. The ‘crinoline’ stretcher of the chair at the centre sweeps round to draw the eye to the other two. This chair is placed close to the L.S. Lowry painting ‘Mountain Lake’ (1947). Look at the way the form of the stretcher echoes the line of the far side of the lake in the painting.
*A glossary of terms relating to Windsor Chairs can be found here.