Picture This XXXVIII

In A Double Bow Windsor Chair – Part Eight, I mentioned some of the shades and hues of green that were used to paint Windsor chairs. When restoring old Windsors, it’s apparent that some paints were better formulated than others – perhaps due to the inclusion of stable pigments, though more likely through the use of superior oils and resins.

The flyer below advertises several qualities of cheap green paint for outdoor use, of which, the names of some strike a cord.

James_Crease_and_Son_Cheap_Paints_c1815_01aFlyer for colourmen James Crease and Son, circa 1815. (Lewis Walpole Library)

I wonder how many chairs were lost – or broken noses were incurred – through the use of invisible green paint.

Jack Plane

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North America – All Shook Up

North American readers may be interested in a current exhibition at New York State Museum showing the Shakers enormous influence on North American culture.

ethnicityThe Shakers were radical in their attitudes toward equality. (Shaker Heritage Society)

In the 1770s, the Shakers launched a revolution parallel to that of the North American colonists against British rule. As they sought religious freedom, Shakers’ spiritual beliefs and communal lifestyle set them in opposition to society. Later their product innovations and marketing skill seemed ‘revolutionary’ to the outside world.

shaker_meeting_house_interior_01aShaker Meeting House, Hancock, Berkshire County, MA.

The Shakers, America’s Quiet Revolutionaries runs until the 6th of March, 2016.

Jack Plane

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Picture This XXXVII

Merlin's_mechanical_chair_c1811_01aFig. 1. Merlin’s Mechanical Chair, circa 1811.

MERLIN’S MECHANICAL CHAIR.

   This curious machine, of which a correct perspective view is given in the annexed engraving, is the contrivance of the late ingenious and well-known Merlin. It is expressly calculated for the accommodation of invalids who, from age or infirmity, are unable to walk about, or of persons, under the temporary inconvenience of gout or lameness.

   In the library, or on the lawn, or gravel-walk or the pleasure-ground, chairs of this kind are peculiarly useful and pleasant. They are in construction an easy reclining or arm-chair, with a foot-board, and, at the extremity of each arm, a small winch handle, easily turned by the hands of the person seated, and which, by their connection with an arrangement of wheels below, propel the chair in any required direction, or with any required velocity, at the pleasure of the operator. These operating handles are seen in the drawing at A and B.

   C C are two wheels on which the chair runs, having each on its flat and outer surface a brass face wheel, worked by a smaller one (marked D) fitted on the long axis of the winch handle.

   E is a third wheel or castor, fitted to the back rail of the chair, and which forms a third point of support, and obeys the direction taken by the wheels C C.

   The mode of operation is this:
The party being seated, the small brass rod seen in the drawing, passing through the right hand arm of the chair, is pulled upwards a little way to disengage the wheels, and the winch handle set to point forward as in the position represented in the drawing.

   Now, if the two handles be both turned outwards the chair moves directly forward. If turned inwards it moves directly backwards. If the right-hand winch be turned outwards, the left remaining at rest, the chair turns sharply to the left, moving on its left wheel as a center; and vice versa of the left-hand winch if turned the same way, or of the right-hand one if turned inwards or the contrary way. If the two handles be turned the same way, i. e. both to the right-hand, or both to the left, at the same time, the chair will move sharply round to the right or left, having its center, or the operator himself, as its center.

   The curious evolutions which may thus easily be performed in this chair render it the means of very considerable amusement, as well as of important use, to those who require its agency; but to the mechanical observer it possesses a new interest. It would not be difficult to contrive an arrangement for moving these wheels, or winch handles, by the action of a very small and portable steam-engine, and increasing the dimensions of the whole machine, and adapting to it a suitable upper structure, to render it a most curious mode of quick conveyance, without the agency of animal labour: indeed, it seems to require no great stretch of the imagination to form of the contrivance many other highly interesting machines.

   A suitable construction might be hit upon to enable it to carry a small cannon, which should be, both for itself and its operators, completely unassailable by the enemy, as well as, by the singular rapidity of its evolutions, terribly and unusually destructive.

   In judicious hands, the principle of the machine might possibly be advantageously used in the construction of a self-moving engine for the public conveyance of dispatches, which would have for its leading peculiarities, a rapid and certain rate of travelling, and complete inviolability as to the matters entrusted to its charge.

   Of the interest and value of the contrivance in its present shape, those only can judge correctly who have experienced its singular advantages.

   This drawing is furnished us by Messrs. Morgan and Sanders, of Catherine-street, Strand, whose warehouses are the grand emporium for furniture combining all the essentials of elegance and comfort. [1]

The partnership of Thomas Morgan and Joseph Sanders flourished between 1801 and 1820, supplying metamorphic and campaign furniture to travellers and Army and Navy personnel (including Vice Admiral Nelson).

An 1804 Morgan and Sanders advertisement promotes their range of Portable Chairs, Patent Camp Beds, and Army and Navy Equipage (fig. 2).

Morgan_&_Sanders_trade_card_c1804_01aFig. 2. Morgan and Sanders advertisement, circa 1804. (British Museum)

Right, I need to locate a small portable steam engine and a small cannon for my next project.

Jack Plane

[1] No. 34 of The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, R. Ackermann, 101 Strand, London, 1811, VOL. VI, p. 225.

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George II Walnut Ladderback Chair – Part Five

Having read the last post in this series, a reader kindly emailed me this image of a pair of Grendey chairs with (presumably, later) stuff over seats.

Geo_II_mahogany_ladderback_chairs_c1745_01dFig. 1. Pair of Grendey ladderbacks. (Nick Brock Antiques)

When freshly rushed, the squab was of a variegated – though not unpleasant – green colour (fig. 2).

giiwglc_300814_01aFig. 2. The newly woven seat.

With a combination of natural and artificial colouring, the seat has adopted an older, mellower look (fig. 3).

giiwglc_300814_02aFig. 3. The completed ladderback chair.

As the chair sees regular use, the thick rush fibres will compress and the squab will settle further into the seat rails.

Jack Plane

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One Down

No, not a cryptic crossword clue, but news of the completion of the first of five chests of drawers I’m making for my up-coming book.

The first chest of drawers is typical of small four-drawer William and Mary chests made around 1695. The carcase is made of pine and veneered with walnut, and the drawer fronts are additionally crossbanded with yew.

book_W&M_chest_itw_01aThe William and Mary chest in-the-white…

book_W&M_chest_finished_01a… and finished.

Four to go.

Jack Plane

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Picture This XXXVI

Anomalies in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British furniture are as diverse as the abilities of its creators. Then, as now, fashions were fastidiously followed, but cost, availability of modish materials and competency frequently cast a shadow on the end product – though the results are often quite glorious.

One sometimes sees case furniture with exposed through-dovetailed drawers and, when constructed in oak or pine, one could be forgiven for thinking the cabinetmaker had a bad week and didn’t get round to sticking on the veneer. But when chests and bureaux occasionally pop up in timbers such as ash, elm, maple and yew, with exposed through-dovetailed drawers, then it becomes apparent that was an acceptable (at least, in some quarters) form of construction around three hundred years ago.

The yew chest below is well proportioned with nicely drawn mouldings and the carcase sides are of frame-and-panel construction – all positive indications of a competent (though likely provincial) cabinetmaker. So what went wrong with the dovetailing – copious ale at lunch on Friday… a journeyman’s sage advice to an apprentice on April Fool’s Day… French instructions?

Queen_Anne_yew_COD_c1705_01aEarly eighteenth-century yew chest of (curiously dovetailed) drawers. (Bonham’s)

Jack Plane

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18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces from 1650 to 1790

An exhibition

From 28 October 2014 to 22 February 2015, the Palace of Versailles is hosting the exhibition “18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces from 1650 to 1790” in the Africa and Crimea Rooms.

The exhibition offers a glimpse of the ingenuity of a bygone era viewed from a present-day perspective and showcases the innovative and avant-garde nature of the shapes, techniques, decorations and materials used in 18th century furniture.

The exhibition includes around 100 major works from collections at the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre Museum, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Palace of Fontainbleau and the Getty Museum, alongside works from private collections which will be on show to the public for the first time.

Cabinets, desks, writing tables, commodes and console tables, but also sofas, armchairs, folding chairs and seating chairs will testify to the revolution that the 18th century brought about in the history of furniture, a reflection of the evolving tastes of a society enamoured by modernity and wanting to live in comfort and luxury.

The concept of design

In 1712, Shaftesbury introduced the term and concept of “design” to art theory. It contains the dual meaning of “plan” and “intention” and unifies the processes of conceiving and shaping a work. For the first time, furniture was planned with forethought, created with specific intention and shaped for both functionality and comfort. 18th-century furniture was produced according to design sources, both in its overall conception and its quest for harmony between form and function.

The transformation of furniture

The quest for the ideal shape and form hit its peak in the 18th century, when the shape of furniture began to change. Inventiveness and creativity abounded and new outlines began to take shape, from console tables to commodes to secretary and armoire desks. Rigid outlines began to soften, then morphed into rounded curves, subsequently giving way to curved legs – sometimes four, six or even eight of them… Furniture became multi-purpose and featured mechanisms that allowed it to transform into something else.

Boldness of materials and colours

The same quest characterised the use of materials: furniture was covered with exotic woods, lacquers, varnishes, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, bronze, brass, lead, porcelain, straw, steel and stone marquetry. Cloth, bulrush and copper began to be used in chairs. Long before the garish colours afforded by plastic in the 20th and 21st centuries, the 18th century saw the birth of furniture in red, daffodil yellow, turquoise blue, apple green, partially gilded or silvered, etc. At the same time, other colour palettes were limited to the black and gold of lacquer and bronze, and patterns were reduced to natural ones made out of quality materials such as mahogany.

Source: Château de Versailles

Jack Plane

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Picture This XXXV

Lopers are employed in bachelor’s chests etc. to support their fold-out leaves and in bureaux to support their falls. I covered the installation of lopers in A George II ash bureau – Part VII.

As I mentioned during the construction of the ash bureau, a vertical divider (and, on occasions, a guide, too) is required between loper and drawer to ensure both operate unimpeded (figs. 1 & 2).

Fig. 1. Loper and vertical divider (with guide behind).

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1750_01bFig. 2. Typical eighteenth-century loper, vertical divider and drawer arrangement. (Richard Gardner)

I recently came across this unusual – but rather nifty – approach to the issue (figs. 3 & 4).

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1755_01aFig. 3. No inter-lopers here! Mahogany bureau, circa 1755.

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1755_01eFig. 4. Vertical divider hidden behind extended drawer front.

The brasses are rather splendid too.

Jack Plane

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In Memoriam

George II

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Proportion, Formulae and Aesthetics

Following on from Getting a Handle on Proportion, it appears that my dismissal of some of the classic rules of proportion (comment 9) has caused upset amongst the ranks. One reader who emailed me attached two pictures of chests with dimensional overlays, arguing that the golden ratio was applicable in both cases – that it worked to within about half an inch. Well, as I said to the author, a formula either works or it doesn’t.

I am sure there are examples of chairs, chests and tables that happen to answer perfectly to either the Fibonacci sequence or golden ratio, but I don’t believe either formula played any part in the average eighteenth-century cabinetmaker’s enlightenment.

The placement of handles on chests-on-chests can make for interesting study: The vertical spacing of the handles – if ‘right’ – are usually only right for the upper chest (as the lower chest is generally wider), though if the overall proportions of the piece are pleasing, then the ‘wrongly’ spaced handles on the lower chest are redressed by the agreeable appearance of the whole (fig. 1).

Geo_III_red_walnut_COC_c1760_01aFig. 1. A magnificent George III red walnut chest-on-chest, circa 1760. (Millington Adams)

The less common deviation of the vertical handle lines (at the point where the upper chest meets the lower chest) of the chest-on-chests in figures 2, 3 & 4, in my opinion, displays great genius and restores the balance.

Geo_III_rosewood_COC_c1760_01cFig. 2. George III rosewood chest-on-chest, circa 1760. (Bonham’s)

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1775_01aFig. 3. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1775.

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1790_Anthony_Short_01aFig. 4. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1790.

And a few less comely chests just for comparison…

Geo_III_mahogany_tallboy_c1765_01aFig. 5. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1765. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1790_01aFig. 6. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1790. (Dreweatts)

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1800_01aFig. 7. George III mahogany chest, circa 1800. (Dreweatts)

Jack Plane

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