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Chair Making

The Craft of 18th-Century English Chairmakers:

In the intricate tapestry of 18th-century English craftsmanship, chairmakers—or chairblers, as they were colloquially known—held a distinguished place. Their work, a blend of artistry and technical proficiency, evolved from earlier traditions where joiners and turners shaped the basic forms and basketmakers wove the seating. By the 18th century, this craft had crystallised into a specialised field, significantly influenced by the dissemination of design through pattern books and the flourishing exchange of artistic ideas across Europe.

The Influence of Design Books and International Styles:

The practice of chair making in the 18th century was profoundly impacted by the advent of printed design books. These volumes, often authored by eminent designers like Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton, served not merely as catalogues of style but as vehicles for the standardisation and spread of aesthetic ideas. Chippendale’s “The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director,” published in 1754, is a quintessential example, illustrating a wide range of styles from Gothic to Chinese, thereby exemplifying the era’s fascination with both revivalist and exotic motifs.

These books were instrumental for chairmakers, who used the detailed engravings as a template from which they could craft their pieces. The designs were not slavishly copied but adapted to suit the materials available, the skills of the craftsman, and the demands of clients, allowing for a degree of personalisation and regional variation that enriched the craft.

Materials and Techniques of Chair Construction:

English chairmakers of the 18th century predominantly used locally sourced woods such as oak, walnut, and later mahogany, which was favored for its durability and deep, lustrous finish that could be polished to a high sheen. Mahogany, imported from the colonies, allowed for greater creativity in design due to its workability and strength, which supported more daring shapes and thinner constructions.

The process of making a chair began with the careful selection of wood, considering its grain and natural characteristics to ensure both aesthetic appeal and structural integrity. The wood was then cut, shaped, and assembled using a variety of joinery techniques. Mortise-and-tenon joints were commonly employed for their robustness, often further secured with dowels or pegs.

Carving was a significant aspect of the chairmaker’s skill, especially in more ornate pieces, where backsplats, legs, and arms might be adorned with acanthus leaves, shells, or other motifs drawn from classical or naturalistic sources. The surfaces of finer chairs were sometimes veneered—a technique that involved applying thin slices of finely grained wood to a solid substrate to achieve decorative effects.

Upholstery and Finishing Touches:

Upholstery, too, played a critical role in the function and luxury of 18th-century chairs. While the frames provided the necessary structure, it was the upholstery that offered comfort and opulence. Materials such as horsehair, straw, and down were common fillings, covered with sumptuous fabrics like velvet, damask, or needlepoint. The upholstery not only added comfort but also colour and texture, allowing for further personalisation.

The final stage involved finishing the wood, often with varnishes made from natural resins, which protected the wood and enhanced its natural beauty. This attention to finish and detail ensured that the chairs were not only functional and comfortable but also beautiful objects of art.

The 18th-century chairmakers of England were masters of their craft, integrating international design influences from pattern books, employing a range of woodworking and upholstery techniques, and using both local and imported materials to create pieces of functional art. Their legacy is evident not just in the survival of their chairs but in the continuing appreciation and study of their techniques and styles, a testament to their skill and the cultural richness of their time.

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