Characteristics of Welsh Stick Chairs

front

This is the earliest representation of a Windsor chair. It is from a mid 12th century manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda. The picture is of a judge sitting on a chair. Note the tapered legs, arm rests and high back.


This is an excerpt from “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown.

Probably the first record of a back chair is in the manuscript of the laws of Hywel Dda (Howell the Good), a 10th century Welsh king. The surviving document, inscribed in the middle of the 12th century, has an illustration of a judge sitting on what is clearly a back or stick chair.

14

Plate 14. “Pura Wallia …” These three arm-chairs are all of similar type: (a) is from Caernarvonshire; (b) from Cardiganshire, and (c) from Radnorshire. They represent a total Welshness from the mid 18th century.

The history of the English chair since about 1800 is well recorded. The first chair factories with division of labour were working during the Napoleonic Wars. There are no such records of the early Welsh chairs, or the late ones for that matter. The stick chair on this side of the Atlantic is a peasants’ chair, of little value, and therefore not worth recording. Welsh stick chairs were not built by chair-makers, but almost certainly were the work of the village carpenter, wheelwright or coffin-maker. A house would be built by a group of people from the area, men of various skills who could afford the time. They were not builders as such. The trades were for the important things in life, the blacksmith and the wheelwright for agriculture. Household wares, such as furniture, were the luxuries of life which came after the provision of food. People had to do several things. A farmer might be a good hand at plastering, or the blacksmith’s wife made candles. Furniture was made by men who were handy with tools. We see only the best of it, poorly made pieces have long since fallen apart. Many of the implements used on the farm had components of wood: plough beams, harrows, wheelbarrows, sleds and gates, and for economic reasons a good proportion of these would have been user-made.

8

Plate 8. (a) and (c) are examples of chairs which seem to come from mid to north Wales and have three or four heavy untapped sticks; (b) is a handsome chair with a slightly ‘saddled’ seat. Chair (d) has great charm, and has been ‘modified’. The heavy arm and turned posts are interesting.

Tracing the provenance of individual country chairs is a complicated business, probably with few exceptions, impossible. There is no scholarly standard work to refer to. Chairs with similar characteristics are found in different parts of the country (Plate 14). They cannot, with any certainty, be regionalised. Carmarthenshire, with large areas of good farming land and a high proportion of better houses, is known for the quality and elegance of its locally-built furniture. Chairs found in the county, whilst unmistakably Welsh, have a greater sophistication than those made in the more remote parts further north (Plate 20). Dating Welsh stick chairs is very difficult. Whether these Carmarthenshire chairs were made concurrently with their more ‘folk art’ cousins from further north is difficult to say, but it looks as though they might have been. There is the possibility of another regional style. Some Welsh chairs have a wide lozenge- shaped seat, with only three or four untapered, heavier long sticks at the back. This type appears to come from the north (Plate 8, a & c).

20

Plate 20. A pair of chairs from Carmarthenshire, probably dating from the last quarter of the 18th century.

As the standard of living improved, throughout Wales primitive furniture and chairs were made. By whom and for whom it is difficult to say. For certain, these items did not find their way into the squire’s house and they were almost entirely rural. The one thing about the chairs is that they all fulfilled the strict definition of ‘Windsor’, in that they grew from a solid wooden seat, having legs and sticks socketed into that seat. The termination of the long back sticks was normally a comb, that is a piece of wood, sometimes curved, sometimes straight, into which the tops of the sticks were mortised. Rarely, a few later chairs have a steamed bow or hoop (Plates 16 & 20). Many of the chairs terminated at the arm, that is the rear sticks did not come up to the level of shoulders or head. These arm-chairs, quite common, are the forerunner of the smoker’s bow or captain’s chair (Plate 14).

16

Plate 16. This chair illustrates what happens when a country-maker tries to copy his more sophisticated cousins. This is an English chair, made in Wales.

What is it that makes these chairs so attractive that now they have become highly sought after collectors’ items? Could it be some extension of the old Celtic art which makes them so appealing? – a naive folk art uncluttered by association with the contemporary urban styles. Many characteristics of the design are extremely good, and represent what we look for today in a well proportioned chair.

Meghan Bates

This entry was posted in Welsh Stick Chairs by John Brown. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Characteristics of Welsh Stick Chairs

  1. Erik Hoover says:

    Nicely said and done. Thanks for this.

  2. Bill says:

    All of these chairs are of course shown without any cushions or drapery. It is highly likely that they would have been made more comfortable with anything ranging from a rough sack of straw to a brocade coving horsehair. This is naturally not the point of the discussion but it is worth bearing in mind if only for the historical interest. One would like to think that the finer chairs had suitable slip covers, not only to make them warmer and drought free but to make them look grander.

  3. Al says:

    Are the rockers that look like these also of welsh orgin? Also it appears that Judge Fingerman likes his chair

Comments are closed.