EARLY DINING CHAIRS
Dining chairs were very much a novelty at the start of the 18th century, but those produced in the next 100 years set the styles for the centuries to come.
Like the idea of elegant dining itself, the dining chair was more or less unknown before the 18th century. Prior to that, meals tended to be taken at long trestle tables, with the master of the house sitting in state on an oak armchair, guests perhaps seated on straight-backed, cane-seated, armless cane chairs and lesser members of the household perched on stools and benches.
Only in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) did chair-makers begin producing sets of chairs specially for dining rooms.
The best Queen Anne chairs were made in walnut, a lovely, gold-coloured wood that takes carving very well. Lesser versions were sometimes made in oak, beech or various fruitwoods.
The typical Queen Anne chair had a broad, upholstered seat and a high back made up of a flat, usually vase-shaped and sometimes carved splat between two uprights, with a cresting rail across the top. It had cabriole
legs, with decorative carving at the knee, and ended in ball and claw feet.
By the 1720s, a set of chairs - typically six chairs and two armchairs, known as carvers was de rigeur in the dining rooms of the
However, supplies of walnut were running low, and furniture makers switched to mahogany from Florida and Jamaica. The dark wood was very strong, suitable for carving and could be polished to a silky finish.
At first, chair designs were largely unchanged, but from 1740 on, a variety of new styles of construction and decoration were introduced.
Most of these were named for Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite or Thomas Sheraton, the most influential furniture designers of the period.
Only Chippendale actually made furniture; all three, though, published popular pattern and style books.
Whatever their style, and whenever they were actually made, dining chairs modelled after those of the Georgian and Regency periods all share a certain elegance of design.
This reflects the preoccupation with proportion at the time they were first created, and means they always look particularly at home in an 18thcentury house.
The names of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton are applied to chairs as a description of the general style. This doesn't mean that one of them had a hand in their creation or even that they were made in their lifetime. 'Chippendale' chairs are still made today.
However, a chair with a back similar to one of the patterns in Chippendale's book, The Gentleman and
Cabinet-Maker's Director, will make a higher price than one loosely in the Chippendale style.
Chippendale chairs have bow-shaped cresting rails and delicately carved and pierced splats. They usually have cabriole legs, with scroll feet or with a ball-and-claw. Cheaper Chippendale chairs had
straight legs and stretchers.
Hepplewhite's name is given to the neoclassical chairs of the 1780s, though he actually designed none of them. They can be recognized by their oval, heart-shaped or shield-shaped backs, often filled with delicate carvings.
The backs were attached to the frame by short continuations of the back legs. This allowed the seat to be stuffed over at the back as well as on the other three sides.
Sheraton's early work was very similar to that of Hepplewhite, though later he came to rely more on straight lines.
The back, usually a neat rectangle, was often filled with carved tracery. The legs took on typical Regency curves and were often fluted or reeded.
You will rarely find good-quality early chairs outside of an auction house or furniture dealer, though bargains can sometimes be found at country house sales.
Make sure the chair is structurally sound. Signs of weakness will tend to show up first in the back legs.
Turn the chair over and look at the underside. Check the blocks joining the side rails, as these may have had to be replaced or restored.
Georgian and Regency chairs with stuff-over seats will have their webbing nailed to rails of beech, which accepts nails without splitting.