The evolution of furniture styles is clearly reflected in the design of chairs. The shape and material used to form the back can give you clues to the period and provenance of any chair.
Chair back styles changed rapidly over the years; getting the right one is necessary in any period interior.
Few furniture details are more characteristic of a particular time and style than a chair back, though, as always with furniture there is the proviso that popular pieces have been reproduced over and over again following their introduction and in many cases are still being made today.
Before the second half of the 17th century most furniture was made by carpenters and joiners of varying of skill. The most common form of early chair was the joiner's chair which had a panelled, box-framed base and seat. The back stiles (uprights) of the base were continued up to form the side rails and the space between them was filled in with more solid panelling. Such chairs were functional, but very heavy.
LIGHTNESS AND STRENGTH
To lighten them, chairs began to be made in the mid-17th century without a solid back support. At first, a panel was set at shoulder height, rather than filing the whole of the back. More open backs soon appeared, though all chairs retained the basic box framework - two uprights, or side rails, a top piece or crest rail, and sometimes a strengthening piece, or cross rails between the side rails.
The first open-back chairs, made in oak, had a broad crest rail and several cross rails, sometimes joined together with turned spindles. The reign of Charles II (1660-1685) saw many new developments. Walnut was increasingly used, as well as oak and
beech, and panels of cane were supported between turned side rails. Barley sugar twist turning first appeared at this time. Under Charles' successor, James II (1685-89), backs became higher and narrower, and baluster and vase turning were increasingly used on side rails.
There was an influx of craftsmen from the Continent following the accession of a Dutch king, William of Orange, in 1689, and the profession of cabinetmaker - implying a much greater degree of accuracy and decorative skills than that of joiner or carpenter - became an increasingly important one in the next 100 years.
From about 1700 on, for the first time, chair backs were curved to suit the shape of the sitter rather than made rigidly upright. The hooped back had uprights flowing into the crest rail in an unbroken line. A variation of this was the spoon back; the gap between the side rails was narrower near the seat, and they curved out before curving in to make the crest rail. Spoon and hoop backs could be upholstered or plain.
Another development of the early 18th century was to omit the cross rails and strengthen the back instead with a splat, a large, flat, vertical piece in the shape of a stylized vase.
In the 1740s, rounded backs gave way to a square-shouldered variety, with the crest rail, typically shaped like a cupid's bow, swept up and over the side rails, which themselves sometimes flared out slightly. The use of hard Spanish mahogany from the 1720s on had made carved detail more practicable, and by the 1740s the back splat had developed into a tour de force of elaborately pierced carving, often carried out by specialist craftsmen working from home.
This style is commonly known as Chippendale, but though the great designer's workshop turned out many chairs of this type, and he included them in his 1754 pattern book, he did not invent the look. One characteristic of Chippendale was to leave a space between the seat and the back panel of upholstered chairs.
Also popular in the 1750s, but not appearing in any pattern books, was the ladder back, with a succession of cross-pieces forming the back support. The style continued to be popular in country chairs for decades.
In the 1760s and 1770s, fashion swung towards the classical designs in favour with Robert Adam. The typical Adam chair was made of painted and gilt softwood, with rounded or elliptical upholstered backs set between, and rising above, the side rails. Even when the square-shouldered shape was retained, the whole look was lighter; the cross and crest rails were lightly decorated, and were sometimes serpentine in shape, while the splats, often lyre shaped, typically had more piercing in them than wood.
In the 1870s, the custom was to set the crest rail between the side rails, which supported open or upholstered backs shaped as hearts or shields. These types were illustrated by
George Hepplewhite, and today hear his name, although he didn't invent hem. One chair back design that probably did originate with him was based on the Prince of Wales' feathers.
By the turn of the century, chairs had become lighter still, even delicate. The crest rail was thin at the ends, thicker and flat in the middle. These changes were codified by Thomas Sheraton's pattern books. Sheraton was particularly fond of rectangles; he filled the one made by the side, crest and cross rail with various designs, or left it empty. Splats were rare. The crest rail was sometimes turned.
The opulent Regency period brought forth a rich, even bewildering variety of chairs, based on Greek and Egyptian originals, among others; at the same time, the
chinoiserie and neo-classical styles also made a comeback.
From the 1820s onwards, the trend was towards arched crest rails. Balloon backs, popular in the Hepplewhite period, returned, though the upholstered 'balloon' was oval rather than elliptical in shape. There was a reaction against the lightness and delicacy of earlier styles. Chairs, along with everything else, got bulkier.
The Gothic style, with backs carved in the shape of church window tracery or pointed arches, gained renewed popularity from the 1840s. At the same time, there was an 'Elizabethan' revival, featuring elaborate hand carving on both the crest and cross rails.
Social changes - specifically the increase of smoking as an acceptable social habit for gentlemen - led to the increased popularity of parlour chairs. These resembled dining chairs in general shape, but had more sloping backs for greater comfort. Comfort also inspired the use of coiled springs in upholstery from the 1830s on; fully upholstered chairs with buttoned backs became increasingly popular.
A steam-powered carving machine, which allowed the operator to turn out several identical pieces at once was in general use by the 1850s. Mechanical saws and planes were already well established, and this meant that fine furniture styles were in the reach of the less wealthy; the mass production of revived and reproduction chairs began to blur the lines of period design, though the first 20 years of the new technology created a particular style of their own.
Hand-carvers and machine carvers competed with one another to show off the superiority of their methods, with the result that the 1850s and 1860s saw the production of ever more extravagant carved forms and a great number of - to the modern eye extremely over-decorated pieces.