A Journey to Wales, Part 3: St Fagans

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Emyr Davies (left) and Chris Williams discuss a low-back chair at St Fagans.

When deciding what chairs to place in the historic buildings collected at the St Fagans National Museum of Wales, Emyr Davies says museum officials have to be careful.

If they place a high-style chair in a house or a room at the castle, no one will bother it, says Emyr, the senior conservator for furniture. But if they put one of the vernacular Welsh stick chairs on display, visitors are so drawn to them and curious that they will plop right down in them.

During my visit to St Fagans I felt that same urge to sit in every chair, but I resisted (perhaps because I was accompanied by museum officials). So instead I took 200 photographs of the 29 chairs that we inspected during the day. Some of the chairs were as familiar as old friends because I had studied them ad nauseam in John Brown’s “Welsh Stick Chairs.”

But about half of the chairs were new to me – chairs that had been in the storerooms of St Fagans or in their shop for repair. These chairs were a revelation and offered details I had not encountered before in books. One was green with yellow pinstripes. Another had a crest rail that resembled a cartoon dog bone. I believe I counted three seat shapes that were new to me. Plus, one that was painted with oxblood.

I also had the great privilege to listen to Emyr’s thoughts on the chairs after spending his career studying and repairing them. Here’s one detail to consider.

Emyr puts the chairs into two broad categories. The first category consists of chairs that have – for lack of a better word – Windsor-like qualities. Sticks that pass through an armbow and enter a crest rail (or comb) at the top of the chair. The second category of chairs are technically low-back chairs. The arm is usually quite massive and is obviously made from a branch that has either been trained into this shape while the tree was alive or was found in the wild.

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Emyr has several names for these chairs that reflect the shape of the arm, including “hornback” and “rootback” chairs. They also are sometimes called Cardiganshire chairs because that area of Wales tends to produce lots of curved timber.

I’ve never built a chair from this second category because the arm always vexed me. The solution to that is, as Emyr put it: Get a dog and go for walks in the woods. You’ll see the arms in the branches.

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Would that curved branch fit in my suitcase?

So just as I was placing a few of those chairs on my to-build list, we walked into one of the buildings open to the public, and I was struck dumb by a chair that is named in my notes as Chair 024. I took 19 photos of this chair. That’s a love affair in my world, and I’ll write about this beauty in my next entry.

— Christopher Schwarz

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One Response to A Journey to Wales, Part 3: St Fagans

  1. I had a similar reaction to the rootback chairs when I visited St Fagans. Building one (or maybe more) of these chairs is firmly on my to do list for 2019.

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