The following is a brief look into a subject which when extensively examined can easily become book length.
The remarks are confined primarily to the 18th century Windsor chair and the intent is to answer the questions most often asked of King-Thomasson; to give the reader some idea of the skill and dedication required to produce the English Windsor Chair and to see beyond its aesthetic and familiar appearance by understanding the skills of the craftsmen who labored long and hard for our pleasure.
The term vernacular furniture applies to furniture that is not professionally designed. In a developed society, design features of arts and crafts can usually be traced to professional outside influences. Windsor chairs, though they represent a common style, were created in isolated and insular conditions. Therefore many of the earlier Windsors reflect an individualism and charm not to be found in furniture that adhered to strict design principles.
The most frequently asked questions about the English Windsor are: Why the name Windsor? And when did Windsor chair making begin?
There are several myths surrounding the name but the most likely explanation is that the chair was originally made in the region of the town of Windsor, Berkshire. The beech woods surrounding the area supplied plenty of raw material and the river Thames provided excellent transport for chairs to be taken to London.
The style had earlier beginnings than is generally believed. In a Will record of 1708 there is a reference to "A John Jones of Philadelphia who died possessed of a Windsor chair". This must undoubtedly have been an English Windsor since the American Windsor chair-making did not commence until around 1725.
The Windsor chair began life as a garden chair and would have been painted either dark green or black for protection against the elements. There are two well-known 18th century English paintings of families in their gardens in which painted comb back Windsors are included. All Windsor chairs prior to the middle of the 18th century were of the comb-back type. (see pictures)
The following are a few words about construction techniques prior to the industrialization of the form:
The felled tree was rolled over a saw pit and then sawn into planks by two men operating a double handled saw: one above ground and one in the saw pit.
The seat was cut from a plank (invariably elm wood) then held between the craftsmen's feet and dished with an adze. Extra comfort was achieved by creating the saddle seat.
The turner, with a pole lathe, turned the legs, stretchers, arm supports and vertical upright sticks (although the sticks were often shaped with a draw knife in the 18th. century).
The seat, once it had received its legs, resembled a stool and was ready to receive its superstructure i.e. the comb or bow back which would then be assembled with the infilling of vertical sticks into the top cresting rail of the comb back or the back bow of the bow back.
The back splat from the mid 18th century onwards was often enriched with a central pierced motif in the style of the era such as Hepplewhite or Chippendale. The splat was drawn to shape, sawn and pierced. In the 18th century the splat was invariably made in one piece, which stretched from seat to back bow or crest rail. In the 19th century it was made in two parts and divided at the arm bow.
The wheel became the most popular design and could almost be regarded as the signature emblem of the English tea shop and tavern.
The arm and back bows were soaked and boiled to make them supple then bent around a shaping block, pegged into position and left to dry.
The chair maker created a tight fit within the joint by wedging and by combining green and seasoned woods to allow the natural shrinkage to tighten the joint. With the advent of the mechanization of chair-making in the middle of the 19th century, glue was used to hold the joints, thus doing away with the need for such precise skills as had been required by the craftsmen of earlier years.
The two chairs illustrated here from the King-Thomasson inventory are both mid 18th century comb back Windsors. One is very sophisticated with modified cabriole legs to the front and a back splat carved in the Hepplewhite manner. The other has simple turned legs with a nod to Chippendale in the design of the back splat. Both chairs mercifully escaped the tortures of the wicked "stripper" and retain much of their original painted surface.