Chairs with adjustable backs were a relatively late
development of the easy chair, which was itself an essentially Victorian creation
Before about 1830, lolling about in a comfortable chair was considered
unacceptably slack behaviour in polite company.
It was only in Victoria's reign that, in a family context at least, strict Georgian conventions were relaxed to permit a more informal style of living.
This change was helped along the way by the introduction of sprung upholstery in the 1820s.
The coiled springs were put underneath the layers of hair and various vegetable fibres traditionally used to stuff furniture and held in place by deep-set buttons, giving the fabric coverings a luxurious, pleated look.
Subject, as ever with Victorian furniture, to fashionable revivals of earlier styles, the easy chair developed gradually through the 19th century.
Only in the 1860s did furniture designers begin to turn their attention to creating chairs where the slope of the back support could be increased or decreased for greater comfort.
Such chairs were not wholly new. They had been made on a one-off basis for invalids since the end of the 17th century, and several were patented in the 1830s as part of a vogue for mechanical furniture.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
However, the first adjustable chair intended for general drawing-room use was produced by Morris & Co, the
Arts and Crafts pioneers.
One of the firm's best-selling lines, it was popularly known as the Morris chair, though the designer was not William Morris himself, but his friend, Philip Webb.
This chair, and the growing popularity of Arts and Crafts style through the latter half of the 19th century, led to the introduction of several similar chairs by different makers.
These often had ingenious variations on the reclining mechanisms, but most chairs had a similar look, with a squarish shape, wooden arms that were only occasionally padded, and loose cushions on the seat and back.
Before the 1860s, adjustable chairs were found only in sickrooms.
The Morris chair, though, was designed for the drawing room.
Better quality easy chairs were made in walnut or mahogany.
Some cheaper manufacturers substituted beech, coated with a thick, treacly stain to look like mahogany.
Dark stains were also used on inferior mahogany pieces.
Upholstery patterns varied according to fashion. Morris chairs originally had cushions
upholstered in green velvet, but you are just as likely to find them in the rich, tapestry
patterns that were the company's speciality.
Silk damask, velvet, brocatelle and plush, a sort of
velvet with a long pile, were all favoured luxury materials for covers, while cheaper ones were made of printed cottons or repp, a plain ribbed material.
Those chairs upholstered in leather or haircloth - woven from horsehair - were intended for smoking rooms, libraries and other male preserves.
The best place to look for adjustable chairs is in auction rooms or second-hand furniture shops.
Antiques dealers are only likely to sell original Morris chairs and perhaps early pieces of invalid furniture by known
If comfort, rather than collectability, is your aim, battered old chairs can be worth buying, provided they are complete.
They are relatively cheap, and can be turned into attractive and useful pieces of furniture by re-covering the cushions and cleaning and possibly restaining the wood.