Saturday, 12 March 2005

Lancashire spindle back carver

by Christopher Proudlove©

The Business Manager (Mrs P) and I visited one of the Cheshire's poshest antiques fairs last Saturday - at Tatton Park, Knutsford - and were cheered to see there were actually some things we could afford. However, she soon put me right … we don't have the space!

Specifically, we were struck by the affordability of some of the furniture on show, notably some lovely oak, which is our favourite.

At £5,000, the gorgeous dresser base on dealer Mike Melody's stand was about half the price it might have been in the heady days of the 1990s.

And then there were chairs. As we arrived, a smiling couple were just about to carry out to the waiting Volvo a super set of 10 Lancashire spindle-back dining chairs they had secured. The ticket price was £3,500 and I dare bet they haggled that even lower.

That's positively cheap. A harlequin set - long runs like that were rarely if ever made, so expect to find slight variations - the 10 included two grand carvers, and they were in pristine condition.

Ten years ago the same set of elm and ash chairs, they dated from 1780-1800, would have cost at least £6,000.

But word on the grapevine is that such bargains will not be around for ever. Minimalism and chucking out the chintz is so last year.

Collectors with an eye for a deal are realising that the furniture market - depressed for some time now - is turning a corner. Bargains are still to be had, but they're being snapped up fast.

The couple who snapped up the Tatton chairs were looking for something to sit on around their newly-acquired elm refectory table. With their original glorious golden brown colour and original patination, they couldn't have made a better choice.

At home in any surroundings, the chairs were comfortable, usable and so much more characterful than the stuff on the High Street.

Less comfortable, but no less charming was a single chair we spotted, which I've always known as a stick chair. "Ah," says Mike, "that's a fool's chair … because you'd be a fool to sit on it!"
Judging by its naïve construction, spindly legs and uncomfortable looking bucket seat, he was probably right. But apparently that's the generic name for such a chair.

Made from elm, it dated from 1700 and at £595, it would make a fascinating conversation piece.

Fact is, there side by side were pieces tracing the development of country chair-making over two centuries.

Country woodworkers, used to making spokes for the wheels of carriages and farm vehicles, quickly turned their hand to making chairs and stools with turned legs.

Indeed, 17th century wheelwrights were adept at wood turning and in many cases, trade labels in use at the time often described craftsmen as "wheelwright and chair-maker".

Before long, a range of joint-less furniture was available from the workshops of wood turners, limited only by the need to avoid any manufacturing technique that might upset joiners whose livelihoods would otherwise have been undermined.

While the extent of the range of chairs available was necessarily limited, the ingenuity of their design was not.

Seats are supported by turned spindles rather than frames formed with mortice and tenon joints, just like the shelves of cupboards, while the legs of a well made chair are as shapely as any stair balustrade.

The work is even more remarkable when the primitive nature of the machinery is considered.

Woodturning as a skill dates back to prehistoric times, while the nature of lathes had changed little by the 17th century.

Many attempts were made to use mechanical power to drive lathes, including, water power.

They were mostly failures, leaving turners to rely on their own stamina and foot-power on the treadle of a pole-lathe or bow-lathe or that of their apprentice, turning the handle of a geared flywheel.

With the pole-lathe, the first downward kick of the treadle revolved the piece of wood being turned in one direction only.

This caused a rope to twist, pulling down on a springy wooden pole or bow. When the operator released his weight from the treadle, the supple pole was allowed to spring back, causing the piece of wood to spin in the opposite direction.

The downside of this was that the shaping chisel could be applied only on the down stroke, but a skilled operator treadling at high speed could shape a chair leg in a matter of moments.

Itinerant wood turners often operated out in the open air, usually in the middle of the stand of trees or forest clearing that was supplying the raw materials for their work.

The more well to do turners might buy a batch of trees, fell and season them where they dropped and then turn them into chair legs or whatever, all in a season of work.

At the end of the day, hauliers were engaged to carry away the finished products, while charcoal burners moved in to scavenge and tidy the site before the whole operation moved on to the next section of forest to be tackled.

The most famous and best loved of all such chairs is the Windsor, so-called because the largest area for their manufacture was in the forest areas of Buckinghamshire and finished chairs were sent to market at Windsor, en route for London.

Another term connected with these early Windsors is the "peg-leg chair", the expression relating to the manner in which the legs and other components are fastened to the seat board.

The method of construction is both simple and primitive, but highly effective. Holes are bored through the plank seat and legs and uprights rammed home.

Prior to this, the end of each of the various sticks were cut into a V-shape, so that once in place, a wedge could be driven into the V, securing it for all time.

The North of England also had a thriving chair-making industry and today's collectors are keen to seek out and secure identifiable examples.

Most common are the spindle back chairs which were turned out in their thousand. However, recent research has identified a spindle back chair popular in Liverpool and the North West in the mid 19th century, identifiable by fan shape carved into its top rail.

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