Ladderback chairs (so called because of their horizontal back splats’ obvious resemblance to the rungs of a ladder) are a vernacular form of chair made by local craftsmen from green, coppiced wood such as ash and beech (fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Eighteenth-century rush-seated ash ladderback chair.
In the early 1730s, established cabinetmakers (using sawn, seasoned timber) developed the traditional ladderback into a more fashionable style of chair (fig. 2).
Fig. 2. George II walnut cabriole-legged ladderback chair, circa 1735-40. (Christie’s)
These sophisticated chairs were fashionably made from walnut and mahogany with seats of rushes woven around beech, oak or pine drop-in frames. The drop-in seats, or squabs, were either supported on rebated seat rails, or on laths nailed to the insides of plain seat rails.
Woven bulrush (Scirpus lacustris) – and to a lesser extent, marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) – seats were commonplace from the mid-seventeenth-century and continued so at this time (fabric- and needlework-upholstered drop-in seats were a later modernisation or adaptation). Outworkers, called ‘bottomers’ and ‘matters’ (who also made rush bed- and floor mats), wove rush around the bare drop-in frames. When completed, the rushed squabs were painted to counter their affinity for collecting dust and to aid in their preservation; however, precious few original rushed squabs have survived intact.
During the second quarter of the eighteenth-century, plainer ladderback chairs with square, chamfered and moulded frames gained favour. The celebrated London cabinetmaker, Giles Grendey (1693-1780) – one of a small number of English cabinetmakers who signed their work – can be identified as the maker of several individual examples and sets of these understated rush-seated ladderback chairs (fig. 3). Grendey was made freeman of the Joiners’ Company in 1716, elected to the Livery of the company in 1729, appointed Upper Warden of the Company in 1747, elected its Master in 1766 and operated an immense furniture and furnishings business from his premises at Aylesbury House, St. John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London.
Fig. 3. George II walnut ladderback chair bearing remnants of Giles Grendey’s trade label, circa 1745. (Geffrye Museum)
Evidence from extant ladderbacks from Grendey’s workshops would indicate the chairs he sold were originally rushed. Many rushed drop-in seat frames have since been upholstered and some chair frames have received stuff-over upholstery (figs. 4 & 5).
Fig. 4. George II walnut ladderback chair attributed to Giles Grendey, circa 1750. (Frederick Parker Chair Collection)
Fig. 5. A set of Scottish mid-eighteenth-century mahogany ladderback chairs in the manner of Giles Grendey. (Christies)
In the coming weeks, I shall be attempting the walnut Grendey ladderback chair illustrated in figure 3.
 Thomas Sheraton provides a recipe for painting rushed seats in The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803, pp. 442-3. The practice continued into the twentieth-century.
 CAMPBELL, Gordon, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts – Volume I, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 450.
 The fragmentary business label of Giles Grendey was discovered on the underside of the seat rail of one of six rushed ladderback chairs in Newport Church, Essex, in 1974. GILBERT, Christopher, Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture, W.S. Maney & Son Ltd., 1996, p. 242.
The Grendey style spoke to me as well… thank you for bringing it to my attention!
The Grendey is very nice indeed.
Yours will not disappoint, I am quite sure.
The shape and use of the empty space between the rungs is very interesting!
Very much looking forward to the chair making, since about two thirds of my furniture making over the last fifty years, were chairs. Do you have one to go by?
All I have to go on is the image above and the chair’s height and width.
Are there rushes found locally?
Yes, however, harvesting them would be beyond me now (one needs to wade around in muddy water up to the chest). I’ll see if I can purchase prepared raw materials.
Really looking forward to this one! I picked up a Giles Grendey bureau the other day, large, mahogany, battered but complete.