For the last week I’ve been studying the 200 photos I took at St Fagans and thinking about the 29 chairs that Chris Williams and I examined during our visit there. The chairs look a lot different to me now – they are somehow even more beautiful.
In this blog entry, I’d like to point out some of the details I’ve noticed in these 29 chairs. Please note that I am not trying to make any generalizations about these particular chairs or Welsh chairs in general. The more chairs I get to study, the more variations I encounter.
Instead, these are the details that stood out in this particular group of 29 chairs. Some of these details will be useful as I make more Welsh-inspired chairs in the coming months. Perhaps this discussion will be useful to you.
The Shape of the Sticks
Most contemporary chairs – or reproductions – tend to have sticks that feature “entasis,” a subtle swelling of the stick or spindle. This entasis, which is found extensively in the built world (especially Greek columns), is pleasing to the eye.
Many of the Welsh chairs I examined at St Fagans featured sticks that were dead straight, bent, slightly wonky and, yes, with entasis. What appears obvious after looking at hundreds of these sticks is that a fair number of them likely came straight from the hedge. And so they had some natural curve or bend to them.
Bottom line: There is no rule when making sticks for these chairs. Add entasis if you like. If you prefer dead-straight sticks, the furniture record will support that choice as well.
Of the 29 seats we examined, 12 were saddled and the remainder were not. Almost all of the saddles were quite shallow. And only a few featured any sort of pommel. None featured a gutter between the sticks and the saddle.
The issue of comfort comes up time and again with these chairs. Are they comfortable? How can they possibly be comfortable? While we weren’t able to sit in any of the 29 chairs, I have enough experience with them to know that a chair with a lightly saddled seat can be sat in for hours. I’ve been sitting in one every evening for 15 years.
You can obviously improve the comfort of any of these chairs with a cushion, blanket or sheepskin. When we visited John Brown’s home at Pantry Fields, one of his chairs was decked out with a sheepskin, and it quite added to the handsomeness of the form.
Few of the chairs featured an undercarriage. Of the 29 examples, six chairs had an undercarriage (or the remnants of one). Some were H-shaped; others skipped the middle brace of the “H.”
I make chairs both ways – with an undercarriage and without. There are visual and structural advantages and disadvantages to each approach. What is my preference? To make what the customer wants. They are both valid approaches.
I wasn’t prepared for the wild variety of armbows I encountered at St Fagans. It’s fair to say that the armbow seems to be the heart of a Welsh chair (whereas the seat is the heart of a Windsor chair). The arms varied widely in shape, from one that was V-shaped to one that looked like three sides of a box.
They also varied greatly in their construction. Some of the armbows were made from one piece of curved wood, but most were pieced together from two or three pieces of wood. The joints varied from simple butt joints to mitered half-laps.
It’s clear that we moderns are spoiled with the wood we use. Many of these old Welsh chairs were made with wood that would never make it out of a modern sawmill, much less into a woodworking project. The seats were filled with knots and deep fissures. Stick were bent and twisted (and not from old age).
Despite the No. 6 grade lumber, the chairs were things of beauty. That is due to the chairs’ graphic forms, which trumped the grain at almost every turn.
There’s more to discuss – the shape of the hands on the armbows, the great variations in crest rails and the rake and splay of the legs, for example. This will have to do for now.
— Christopher Schwarz