A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Fall 2005

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Hearth Chairs

Chairs that were too low for use at a table were probably used at the hearthside, where their low seats kept the sitter below any smoke billowing out into the room. Dr Bernard Cotton, author of The English Regional Chair, commented on an early 18th century example in a recent Christie’s sale:

“Arm chairs made with naturally low seats often form part of the Scottish tradition, where the common practice of having low or floor set fires made the low seats of many fireside chairs particularly useful. This imposing example would probably have been used by the head of the household, the height of the back and the dominant splat emphasizing its importance. The use of raised strips around the edge of the seat is a common feature of Scottish chairs of this type.” Christie’s Catalogue 5753, 3/1/05 lot #29.

We have a seventeenth-century Scottish hearth chair beside our woodstove, and very comfortable it is, despite its seat height of only 12 inches. Its back is raked at just the correct angle for John to stretch his legs out in front of the fire, despite the fact that at six feet he’s probably twelve inches taller than the man it was designed for – and it would have been a man, sorry, ladies, but in those days there was no such thing as equal opportunity in seating! One look at the wear on it is enough to show how many people have sat in exactly that position over the centuries. The simple strapwork on the back panel comes from the Celtic rather than renaissance tradition, and its heavy, folky look gives it a strongly northern feel. It’s unusual, and we’re very fond of it.

This turner’s hearth chair, however, is English. We have recently added it to our inventory. In the better type of English house, the stone hearths were raised sometimes as much as a foot above the floor. English hearth chairs are consequently uncommon, particularly joined ones, like the Scottish one above. Turned chairs were cheaper than joined chairs, so this one, which is plainer and simpler than most, may well have come from a poorer household where the fire was at floor level. It shows wonderful wear and patination, and, like all three-post chairs, is much more comfortable than it looks. For more details visit it on our website (where it is listed under Early Oak, despite being made of ash!)

And finally here’s a little cottage hearth chair from the early eighteenth century that clearly shows its roots in the seventeenth. It’s lost its crest rail and rear stretcher, and has a large blacksmith reinforcement running across the back, but it’s sturdy, characterful and comfortable.

These last three chairs all show a lot of wear -- they were obviously very popular in their day. There aren’t many hearth chairs on the market, but we may speculate that many more were made than have survived, and that hard use wore most of them out.



Sotheby’s London: “The Age of Oak and Walnut,” September 14, 2005

A caveat: We did not view the sale personally, and our comments are based upon catalog photos and descriptions -- so read them with a huge pinch of salt! Both Sotheby’s and Christies’ catalogs are infuriatingly inconsistent. Sometimes they make no mention of condition, sometimes they say, vaguely, “restorations” or “seventeenth century and later’, and sometimes they are relatively precise, saying for instance that a top may be associated. This inconsistency can be seriously misleading, for it can imply that pieces without the word “restorations” in their description are straight. This is rarely the case. The presence or absence of “restorations” results from the whim of the cataloguer and has nothing whatsoever to do with the condition of the piece. Caveat emptor, or in this case, caveat lector.

Dining on Oak

All four low dressers sold, three within the “going rate” of £7,800 - £9,600 and one at £20,400 – it was only slightly better, but must have caught the eye of a couple of private buyers, neither of whom was willing to let the other win! it did not seem a $36,000 piece to us.

Refectory tables did well: 8 out of ten sold, and the two that did not appeared to have had later tops: the boards were thin, and the overhangs at the ends were excessive. The increased overhang makes it comfortable for a diner to sit at the end, which was not a seventeenth century practice: in the period, diners sat along one side of the table only. The catalog, however, made no mention of their (almost certainly) associated tops, though in another lot, 123, it did. Most interestingly, the highest price, £24,000, was achieved by a reproduction, albeit one with a William Randolf Hearst and J. Paul Getty provenance. As usual, there was a large price difference between six- and four-legged tables.

Long sets of backstools did well, a set of 12 Derbyshire type fetched £20,400 and a set of eight, also from Derbyshire, went for £9,000. A set of eight Chas II caned and carved walnut chairs, including two arms, went unsold (low estimate £25,000, so reserve probably around £20,000.) They had later upholstered seats.

Another hot category was small gate-legs, six of the seven sold, and for prices that were well above the market on this side of the Atlantic. The “going rate” was around £6,000, and a couple of them sold at £8,400 and £9,000 -- $16,200 for a good, but not extraordinary, small gate-leg! Large gatelegs, six to eight seaters, did less well, only one of the three sold. The largest, a massive double-gate example, 6’1” x 6’8,” was estimated at £25,000 - £30,000 and did not sell.

A very rare set of six joint stools fetched £36,000 and a pair went for £9,600. The “going rate” for singles was about £2,500; again, at $4,500, well above the market here.

Color Confusion

The catalog opened with a couple of nice quotes from John Evelyn (1662). English oak, he wrote, was “was much esteem in former times till the finer grain’d Norway timber came amongst us which is likewise of a whiter colour. It is observed that oak will not easily glew to other wood, not very well to its own kind.” He praised imported walnut as well: “I say we had a store of this material especially of the Virginia, we should find an incredible improvement in the more sable furniture of our houses.” He went on to praise French walnut for inlay work, particularly wood from the root, or burr walnut.

What is interesting, and somewhat puzzling, is that Evelyn clearly thinks of oak furniture as lighter in color than walnut (“sable” is the heraldic color black, and the word also meant “dark”.) Today, of course, the reverse is usually the case. We have to wonder why. We know that some oak was finished with linseed oil, which does darken with age, but that hardly seems an adequate explanation. We wish they had color photography in seventeenth-century England, but in its absence we must turn to other evidence. Were the houses really furnished with light-colored oak? If any of you have any insights here, please share them with us, and we’ll return to the topic in a future issue of Acorns.



A few of us may be tempted to overindulge in the holiday season. Thomas Nash may help us recognize our stupidity: in 1592 he named the eight types of drunkenness:

The Ape-drunk, who leaps and sings and hollers
The Lion-drunk who is quarrelsome and rude
The Swine-drunk, who is sleepy and lumpish
The Sheep-drunk, wise in his own conceit, but unable to speak
The Maudlin-drunk, who declares he loves all mankind
The Martin-drunk, who drinks himself sober again
The Goat-drunk, who is lascivious
The Fox-drunk, who is crafty, like the Dutch who bargain when drunk