Dictionary of English Pieces - Card Tables. Chairs

Card Tables

Playing-cards were introduced into England in the fifteenth century, and doubtless a special table for use with them followed shortly. None survive before walnut ones made in the reign of William and Mary, with the typical folding tops lined with needlework or cloth. They are rare, but later examples in mahogany survive in large numbers. Almost all are lined with cloth, and many have the inside corners recessed to hold candlesticks; others have oval sunken spaces to hold counters or coins. Late in the eighteenth century card tables were often made in pairs, and examples are found occasionally veneered in satinwood and of half-round shape. After 1800 they were made on a pillar support with splayed legs and brass-capped toes.


Before about 1500 chairs were a rarity, few homes had even one, and most people sat on benches, stools or chests. The chair, when one was to be found, was reserved for the use of royalty and the most noble. By the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, armchairs of various types had begun to be made in quantity, and quite a number survive now. They are made of oak, with a straight or nearly straight back, with turned legs and curved arms, ornamented with carving or inlay. They have plain wood seats, and were used with the aid of a cushion.

Single chairs (those without arms) were probably made at an earlier date, but being less strongly constructed, few have survived that were made before about 1600. Most are quite plain, with the upper part of the back and the seat covered in silk or embroidery. As the seventeenth century progressed, and walnut or painted beechwood replaced oak, a number of fresh styles came and went. Turning, either in the form of bobbins or barley-twist was popular, and the use of caning instead of upholstery was introduced from the Far East. Finally, came the fashion of tall-backed chairs, heavily ornamented with turning and carving, with seat and back caned. Many of these were imported from France and Holland, where a similar fashion reigned, and it is a matter of argument as to where many of these chairs actually originated.

Gradually, caning lost favour, and its place was taken by elaborate upholstery in velvet or figured silk, but in either case with deep-fringed and coloured edgings. Although many of the single chairs were upholstered on both seat and back, others-still with the high back-featured a tall carved and pierced back panel and the first use of cabriole legs. By 1715 the cabriole leg was in general use, and the back of the chair had started to become square in shape: no longer was it the characteristic tall and narrow feature of the previous century. The centre of the back, called the 'splat' was usually a panel of solid or veneered wood and of shaped outline, and the top of the back was rounded. Most chairs showed some carving, especially in the form of the claw and ball foot. Some very finely carved chairs have feet in the shape of lions' paws, with lions' heads on the knees; others have arms which finish in heads of eagles.

By 1740, with the coming of mahogany, the use of carving on chairs was widespread, the back continued to get lower until it was more or less square, and the cabriole leg remained popular. The top of the back was usually of a cupid's bow shape, the seat nearly square and often of generous size. Probably the most famous English chairs are those for which Chippendale shows designs in his book. The Director, where they are called 'ribband back chairs". These have the back carved and pierced in an intricate pattern of ribbons with a central bow. A number of these masterpieces have survived the wear and tear of two hundred years. The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw a further number of different fashions come and go. Robert Adam designed chairs, many of them with oval backs, shaped seats and turned legs, and in carved and gilt wood; an integral part of the decoration and furnishing of the room for which they were created. His suites often ran to a dozen armchairs, with large settees and stools, all covered in tapestry or figured silk. With other designers, backs varied greatly; shield, heart, round, or square, were among the shapes used. Towards 1800 came a fashion for beechwood chairs, many with shield-shaped backs, painted in colours with flowers and other subjects. At about this date, too, satinwood chairs were made, and these also were painted.

In the earlier years of the nineteenth century, chair backs were almost all nearly square, and the legs were curved forward-the 'sabre' shape. Mahogany chairs of this type, much smaller in size than those made in the years before, are very popular today, the most decorative, eagerly sought and, therefore, the most expensive, being those inlaid with brass lines. Rosewood was also a wood used for chair-making at this time, but it was imitated closely in painted beech.

Hall chairs were made during the eighteenth century and later. They were more for display than for comfort, with wood seats, and the backs were usually painted with the coat-of-arms or crest of the owner.

The Windsor chair was first made in the eighteenth century, and is still being turned out in large numbers. The arched back and shaped wood seat appear much the same in chairs of 1760 as in those made two hundred years later. They owe their popularity to their strength and lightness, and to the fact that they can be made cheaply. About 1770 they cost five or six shillings apiece, but they are dearer now.

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