The rustic and oft clumsy wooden-seated chairs of the early eighteenth-century were initially employed as outdoor seating and painted (usually in green) to better resist the elements. Over the following decades the Windsor chair’s shape and form were refined and they found their way into the homes of both rich and poor.
Better known for their innovative designs and peerless cabinetwork, the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Lancastrian firm of Gillows surprisingly produced literally ship loads of painted Windsor chairs. Gillows’ chairs, however, were not intended for the domestic market (though some did remain in England).
After the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775, Gillows realised an opening in the supply of Windsor chairs (at 8s. each) to the West Indies. In a letter to John Swarbrick of Kingston, Jamaica, dated September 1775, Robert Gillows wrote “We thought the North Americans would be so busy fighting that they would not have time to make and send you any Windsor chairs, therefore have dropt. a dozen”. And in May 1776, Gillows wrote to Captain John Calvert, bound for Grenada: “We expect the Windsor chairs will sell to great advance as they do in all other islands, as we presume you can now have no more from America”.
The Windsor that Gillows based their design on was the traditional elegant double bow chair that was produced in the south of England from Essex to Wessex in a number of regional variations (figs. 1 & 2).
Fig. 1. Eighteenth-century double bow Windsor.
Fig. 2. Eighteenth-century double bow Windsor with crinoline stretcher.
Fig. 3. Design for a Windsor chair from one of Gillows’ sketch books.
Although Gillows’ double bow chair retained the iconic upper structure unadulterated, its undercarriage comprised rather insipid tapering legs and a strangely shallow-curved and protuberant crinoline stretcher (figs. 4, 5 & 6).
Fig. 4. Late eighteenth-century Gillows painted chair. (Yew Tree House)
Fig. 5. Late eighteenth-century Gillows painted chair. (Arabesque Antiques)
Fig. 6. Late eighteenth-century Gillows painted chair – the legs shortened. (Wakelin and Linfield)
So intent were Gillows on their chairs arriving in good order, they charged ships’ captains with the task of touching-up – or entirely painting – the chairs prior to delivery. In July 1775 Gillows instructed Leonard Stout, bound for Antigua: “Have sent 2 Windsor chairs in the cabin and 10 ditto in two matted parcels with the legs and rails loose which you’ll to get put together and paint over; have also sent green paint ready mixed and a brush (for that purpose)…”