The Development of the English Oak Chair

T has already been stated at the outset of this book, that chairs, with their kindred pieces, settees, stools, forms or benches, occupy a place apart from other furniture, for the various reasons given in that introductory chapter. While this isolated character of the English chair has been thus insisted upon, the statement is true only of its later development, that is, when it becomes a chair in such a form that it cannot be styled by any other name. Actually, the progenitor of the chair is the ecclesiastical seat, such as the bishop or abbot's throne, the choir stall, the pew, or the bench. It is not exactly true to say that the chair was not known, as such, in the fifteenth century (as illustrated examples on subsequent pages will show), but it is so nearly the fact that the exceptions given may be stated as proving the rule.

It may be necessary, at the very beginning of this chapter, to define what the term " chair " really does, and does not, impfy, and to find a descriptive formula which shall include any type which may arise, and yet exclude anything else. This is not so easy as would, at first, appear. We have to postulate, if possible, a material, a form and a function, yet none of the three admits of exact definition. Chairs, as we know, are usually made from wood, yet one made from iron or stone does not cease to be a chair on this account alone. We have cane or wicker chairs, for example, which one does not call by another name because they are constructed from another material than timber. If we describe a chair as a stool on four legs, with a back, and sometimes with arms, and its function to support a sitter, we have to exclude many pieces which are true chairs and yet are not supported on four legs. If the fifteenth-century box-type be admitted as a chair,—which it is, we must include, in the same category, choir stalls, pews and thrones. Actually, the earlier forms of the chair do not conform to any formula which would describe, adequately, the types known to us at the present day. Even the definition as a seat for one person, with a back, with or without arms, made from wood, which can be moved from place to place, does not apply in all cases, as a chair may be fixed to the floor.

There are several reasons why the church stall or pew will repay examination and comparison, in this connection. The stall is, undoubtedly, the forerunner of the chair.

Stalls and pews were made in such numbers, that they served to establish types. They have, as a general rule, been preserved, and are available for such examination and comparison. The}' represent, in a general way, the fashion of their time, in its best sense, as the mediaeval carpenter gave his finest work to his Church. Stalls and pews are, therefore, not only chair prototypes ; they show the highest class of work prevailing at their period and in the districts where they were made. Lastly, they possess an advantage in being, comparatively, immovable. They represent, therefore, the types of their locality7 in an unmistakable way ; we may be certain, in nearly every case, that a Devonshire pew, for instance, has been made locally, has not been moved to the one village or county from another, and that it is a good example of the skill and taste of its time, and not a depraved example, representing a sporadic fashion or no fashion at all.

We can begin with the square box-end pew of the Devonshire type, such as in Horwood Church, Fig. 1S3. These pews date from the middle of the fifteenth century, and are late for their stvle, which shows the transition from the Curvilineal Gothic to the Perpendicular. That these were the private pews of local families is indicated by the heraldic shields and initials on the second, fourth and fifth pews in the illustration. The last two are shown in better detail, in Fig. 184.

The dawn of the Renaissance can be seen in the two pew-ends from Coldridge Church, Fig. 185, dating from about 1500. The suggestion of the linen - fold pattern between the fret-tracery of the end on the right hand of the illustration, and its actual presence in

HORWOOD CHURCH, N. DEVON.

The square box-ended Devonshire type of bench or pew. Date about 1450.

HORWOOD CHURCH, N. DEVON.

The square box-ended Devonshire type of bench or pew. Date about 1450.

the back of the other, is always a sure indication of either the very close of the fifteenth or the dawn of the sixteenth century.

The two pew-ends from Lapford Church, Fig. i86, carry us well into the sixteenth century, as the purely Renaissance foliated heads, in the Italian manner transmuted through the French of the Francis I period, indicate a date not earlier than 1520, and possibly some decade or two later.

While the square-ended pew is typical of Devonshire, there are rare exceptions, such as at Atherington, Fig. 187. A crocketted pew-end, however, is not only very unusual in Devonshire ; it is exceptional in any part of England. Atherington is a church rich in woodwork, even for Devonshire, which, in the quality of its ecclesiastical furnishings, is not far behind the wealthy East Anglian counties. In several of the Devonshire churches, also, chancel screens can still be found, with their rood-lofts almost intact, as at Swimbridge and Atherington, and one is spared the melancholy sight of the fine carved and painted woodwork, of the most wonderful period of English joinery and colour decoration, left only as magnificent ruins after the purposed destruction by Puritan and other vandals.

Without a wealth of illustration, which would be out of place in a book of this

DETAIL OF THE PEWS, FIG. 183.

DETAIL OF THE PEWS, FIG. 183.

kind, it would be impossible to show the distinctive types of pew and bench-ends which prevail in various well-defined localities of England. There are the Lincolnshire, the East Anglian, the Midland, the Northern, the Somerset, the Devonshire, and the SouthEastern, or Kentish types, all well-defined from the fifteenth almost to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The succeeding examples, therefore, will be briefly referred to, and only from the point of view of illustrating the genesis and growth of the English chair, which is the principal subject of this chapter.

Two views of the benches in Wetherden Church, Suffolk, are given in Figs. 188 and 189. The ends are of the buttress type, capped with grotesque figures of animals. Wetherden illustrates the East-Anglian type of poppy-head (from ponpce—a doll), a district which includes parts of Cambridge and Lincoln. The representation of animals carved in wood is also general in Norfolk and Suffolk. At Bradfield St. George, Fig. 190, the grotesque figure caps the bench end ; at Hitcham, Fig. 191, it surmounts the buttress which forms the arm. At Stowlangtoft, Figs. 192, 193 and 194, each one of the richly-carved benches has this grotesque device on the arms, and the ends of the choir stalls,

Fig. 185. COLDR1DGE CHURCH, DEVON.

Bench Ends. Date about 1500. 148

Fig. 185. COLDR1DGE CHURCH, DEVON.

Bench Ends. Date about 1500. 148

Figs. 195, 196, and 197, finish with beautifully carved figures, of which Fig. 195, a priest standing at a reading desk, will show the fine execution and conception. These stallends are late fifteenth-century East Anglian work at its best, and can be coupled, both in point of design and execution, with the chancel screens at Southwold, Ranworth, Bramfield or Ludham, or the font-cover at I'fford. Brandeston Church has also some interesting bench-ends, slightly earlier than at Stowlangtoft and not so fine in execution. Fig. 198 shows two of these. It must be remembered, in examining these ends, which, although theyr are not of the very finest, are still of high quality, that the church which contains them is situated in a Suffolk village with a population, in 1900, of only 347 persons. That Brandeston may have been larger in the fifteenth century is possible ; it was undoubtedly' richer, but there is no reason to believe that it was ever other than a sparsely populated village.

If the pew or choir-stall be the progenitor of the English chair, the type of the latter, known as miserere seats, illustrates the development, in a very marked degree, if they are removed from their surrounding woodwork or surmounting canopies. The practice of putting these stalls together in rows, where twelve seats, for example, have only eleven ends, destroys the chair like appearance which they would exhibit were each seat a separate unit. In Figs. 199 and 200 accident has done that which custom denied. Here is one of these choir-stalls separated from its fellows, and its strong resemblance to an early chair will be noticed. Actually it is far less clerical in appearance, in this detached form, than are many early chairs which are almost wholly secular in character.

A bench from Rougham, Fig. 201, of the very late fifteenth century, with large and finely carved poppy-heads and solidcut traceried ends, closes this series of the ecclesiastical progenitors of the English domestic chair. It must not be imagined, however, that the transition from

Fig. 186. LAPFORD CHURCH, DEVON.

Bench Ends. The Devonshire type of 1520-30.

Fig. 186. LAPFORD CHURCH, DEVON.

Bench Ends. The Devonshire type of 1520-30.

the clerical stall to the secular chair marks'any distinct change of type. Chairs at the end of the fifteenth century were much too rare to have established a fashion of their own. Apart from being highly exceptional at this period, they are so special in character, and obviously so inspired from clerical sources, that they may be styled rather as church stalls which are not in their proper habitat.

Two examples are given here which would be typical, were others known to exist of which these could be regarded as the type. The first is the Coronation Chair from Westminster Abbey, Fig. 202, the second a chair from St. Mary's Hall at Coventry, Fig. 203. The former has a well-attested history, and can safely be assigned to the fourteenth century, and the latter, although not so well recorded, is equally unmistakable as an example of the fifteenth. Making due allowance for the inexactitude in the early records, the Coronation Chair appears to have been made to contain the "Stone of Destiny," which Edward I brought back from Scone in 1296. There is 110 reason to doubt this, but whether the chair was made at this date or many years later, is not certain. Apart from the fact that its style is that of the end, rather than the beginning of the fourteenth century,— to say nothing of the closing years of the thirteenth,—there are signs which indicate, beyond doubt, that the chair was, at one period, decorated and emblazoned \\ itli gold'and colours, if not with raised and gilded gesso. The merest vestiges of this colour-decoration remain, as the Hi' EP» & | l] chair is in a deplorable state, several generations.

- . * of ignorant vandals having been allowed to carve their initials on it until every available inch of space has been covered. The pinnacles are missing; perhaps they were removed and taken away as keepsakes ! 15°

ATHERINGTON CHURCH, DEVON.

Rare crocketted type of pew-end. Late fifteenth century.

ATHERINGTON CHURCH, DEVON.

Rare crocketted type of pew-end. Late fifteenth century.

Figs. 188 and 189. WETHERDEN CHURCH, SUFFOLK.

'J he East Anglian type of poppy-headed bench-end, buttress-type, of the late fifteenth century.

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