EDWARDIAN SIDE CHAIRS
The Edwardian period was one of the most varied in the history of English furniture making, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the extraordinary range of contemporary chair designs.
In the l8th century, a distinction grew between dining chairs, which received hard use and were very solidly made, and parlour chairs, which were much more decorative, and lighter, so they could be moved about more easily. Parlour chairs were usually put against the wall when not in use for tea parties or other informal gatherings, and came to be known as side chairs.
In the Georgian and Regency periods, they were made as scaled-down versions of dining chairs, following the same fashions in the shape of their backs and legs. This changed in the Victorian period, when style was dominated by a succession of historical revivals and it became possible, even desirable, to have a different style of furniture for each room.
The most popular style for the drawing room, the natural habitat of the side chair, was rococo, and the most characteristic Victorian side chairs were cabriole-legged balloon backs. These were rather delicate little chairs with thin legs. Their rounded wooden backs had a single, narrow, horizontal splat. Balloon backs were commonly sold as part of a drawing-room suite, with a pair of armchairs and a sofa or chaise lounge.
Broadly speaking, there were three styles of side chair available to buyers around the turn of the century. The first type, and by far the most common, were relatively cheap, machine-made pastiches or straightforward reproductions of styles characteristic of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Queen Anne, Hepplewhite and Sheraton designs had largely replaced rococo as an inspiration after about 1880.
The second type, sold by more up-market furniture stores like Heal's, were influenced by the beliefs and styles of the Arts and Crafts movement and of art nouveau. More exclusive than these were the third type, made to the specifications of famous designers. These varied from the Japanese-influenced work of F W Godwin to the severe, progressive styles of designers like Harry Napper and the Scot, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose chairs were more works of abstract art than furniture.
Edwardian reproductions can be good looking, reasonably stylish and affordable, and a good choice for furnishing a room. Sets of chairs aren't that difficult to find, and are cheaper than new sets made to the same standard. You can find them in second-hand furniture warehouses and shops, house sales and dealers specializing in house clearances. They are a bit down-market for specialist dealers, bit they may have one or two better quality sets. Auctions are another possibility.
When buying, look for original upholstery in good condition, sound construction and vigorously carved backs. You don't want anything that's too heavy to move about, but you should avoid flimsy pieces.
Mid-range chairs in Arts and Crafts styles are very much the province of specialist dealers and auctions, and tend to be sold individually, rather than in sets. Chairs in this style are likely to have little or no carving, and will probably have cane, rush or wicker seats rather than stuffed and upholstered ones. Make sure that these are intact.
Look underneath the seat rails to judge quality. The best chairs are jointed and dowelled not nailed or glued, together. Look, too, for the nameplate or stamp of a reputable firm, such as Heal's or Waring & Gillow, which will increase the value of a chair.
Chairs by top progressive designers are rarely seen outside the best dealers and auction houses. In many cases, their appeal is more sculptural than functional, and they can make for rather uncomfortable seating. Mackintosh's chairs, created as integral parts of overall architectural designs, weren't even particularly well made, but enjoyed a vogue in Scotland among those with avant-garde tastes.
• Side chairs weren't built for heavy use. Look carefully for repairs, especially where the back and legs join the seat.
• Many Edwardian chairs still have their original upholstery. To check this is the case, pull out a couple of tacks and see if there are any other tack-holes present.
• Victorian reproductions aren't exact copies of earlier styles. They tend to have narrower seats and thinner legs and stretchers.
• Twentieth century versions of balloon backs are bigger and heavier than earlier ones and have more highly carved splats.