The Timeless Beauty of the Windsor Chair

Painting of Roger and Bradshaigh Edward Haytley (active 1740-1764) with what is thought to be one of the earliest depictions of a Windsor chair in a painting. If you appreciate classic furniture with a touch...

Painting of Roger and Bradshaigh Edward Haytley (active 1740-1764) with what is thought to be one of the earliest depictions of a Windsor chair in a painting. Painting of Roger and Bradshaigh Edward Haytley (active 1740-1764) with what is thought to be one of the earliest depictions of a Windsor chair in a painting.

If you appreciate classic furniture with a touch of elegance, you might be familiar with the enchanting Windsor chair. With its rounded-tenoned back and legs, this chair stands out from the crowd. The Windsor chair's solid wooden seat, often carved for added comfort, sets it apart from other chair styles. Let's dive into the fascinating history and unique construction of this timeless piece.

A Rich History

Sack-back Windsor Armchair also known as a double Windsor Sack-back Windsor Armchair also known as a double Windsor

The origins of the Windsor chair date back centuries. While the exact first appearance of the Windsor chair is uncertain, evidence of stool construction resembling its "stick" design can be found in ancient Egyptian art. However, the modern Windsor design emerged in 16th century England when wheelwrights began crafting chair spindles in a similar manner to wheel spokes.

The Windsor chair is associated with the West Country, Wales, and Ireland, but its true origins remain a mystery. In 1718, the term "Windsor chair" was mentioned by landscape gardener Stephen Switzer in his book, "Ichnographia Rustica," describing a seat designed to rotate and enjoy various perspectives.

The production of Windsor chairs flourished in the county of Buckinghamshire, particularly in High Wycombe. The comb-back Windsor chair became popular in the 18th century, with the introduction of steam bending, which gave birth to its characteristic bow shape. In 1724, the first chairs crafted using steam bending were shipped from Windsor, Berkshire to London, sparking speculation about the chair's name. While it refers more to the style of chair than its place of origin, Windsor has become synonymous with this classic design.

Forms and Construction

Comb-back Windsor armchair Comb-back Windsor armchair

The Windsor chair comes in various forms, each with its own charm and purpose. Some of the distinctive types include the sack-back, hoopback, comb-back, continuous arm, low back, rod back, and fan back.

Craftsmen skilled in different areas collaborated to construct these chairs. The chair bodger, an itinerant craftsman, worked in the woods, crafting the legs and stretchers using a pole lathe. The benchman, based in a small town or village workshop, produced the seats, backsplats, and other sawn parts. The framer, the final craftsman, assembled and completed the chair using the components from the bodger and the benchman.

American Influence

English settlers brought the Windsor chair to North America, where it quickly gained popularity. The earliest known American Windsor chair, based on its British counterpart, was imported by Patrick Gordon, who became lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 1726. Some believe that the first American-made Windsor chair was produced in Philadelphia around 1730.

Ricker Fanback Windsor side chair Ricker Fanback Windsor side chair

American Windsors from the 18th century often feature a combination of three different wood species. Pine, bass, or tulip poplar were commonly used for the seat, while non-ring porous hardwoods like maple were used for the undercarriage due to their stiffness. Ring porous species such as oak, ash, and hickory were used for the spindles, as they could be easily split and steam bent.

The seat of a Windsor chair is a crucial component, providing stability to the upper and lower portions of the chair. English Windsor chairs typically have elm seats, prized for their interlocking grain and cross-grain strength. In contrast, American Windsors often utilized softer woods chosen by chair makers, resulting in thicker seats with deeper saddling or dish carving.

Marvels of Joinery

One of the primary methods of joining Windsor chair parts is through wedged tenon joints. A hole is bored in one piece, and a cylindrical or tapered tenon from another piece is inserted into the hole. A wedge is then driven into the tenon to securely tighten it within the hole. This technique creates a robust mechanical hold, even when the glue fails. Early Windsor chair joints relied on mechanical connections rather than adhesives.

Timeless Painted Finishes

While early British Windsor chairs were often painted, later versions adopted stained and polished finishes. American Windsors, on the other hand, leaned towards painting. In the 18th century, they were grain painted by applying a light color followed by a darker color and then coated with linseed oil for protection.

Completed wedges, awaiting trimming Completed wedges, awaiting trimming

During the 19th century, chairs produced in American factories were often painted with solid colors, with simple stenciling used for decorative purposes. The paint on antique Windsor chairs reveals a characteristic wear pattern around the edges, showcasing the colors used underneath. Preserving the original finish is crucial for maintaining the chair's value, as subsequent repainting or restoration can diminish its authenticity.

The Windsor chair has indeed stood the test of time, captivating generations with its timeless design and remarkable craftsmanship. Whether you admire its historical significance or appreciate the comfort it provides, this classic piece is a true work of art.

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