Monday 11 December 2023

The earliest depiction of a Windsor Chair? Peniarth MS 28 © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

Peniarth MS 28 © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

I recently came across this fabulous illustration from the Laws of Hywel Dda in the collection of the National Library of Wales, about which they say: 

"A Latin text of the Laws of Hywel Dda, being one of the earliest, by a single scribe and dating from the mid 13th century. The notes on a piece of paper pasted onto the inside the end cover which is now partly perished have been transcribed by Gwenogvryn Evans.

The 'Laws of Hywel Dda' is the term applied to a system of native Welsh law named after Hywel Dda (died 950) who is credited with its codification. None of the surviving Welsh law manuscripts, however, is earlier than the second quarter of the 13th century. Although they contain law that is of 12th- and 13th-century origin, scholars are agreed that these manuscripts contain a core of matter that is much earlier in date. Most of these books are small in size and were probably designed as 'pocket-books' to be carried about by lawyers rather than to be kept on library shelves. Peniarth MS 28 belongs to this first generation of law-books, being written probably in the middle of the 13th century, a date arrived at by Daniel Huws on palaeographical and physical grounds; this challenges J. Gwenogvryn Evans's dating of the last quarter of the 12th century. However, the manuscript differs from its contemporaries in a number of respects. It is much larger than the other law-books of the period, probably intended for a library rather than the pocket of a lawyer, and it is written in Latin rather than in Welsh. But what singles it out most is the series of illustrations it contains portraying the king and the officials of his household. The conclusion to be drawn is that the scribe of Peniarth MS 28 had been commissioned to write a special copy of the Welsh laws, probably a presentation copy for some dignitary. The fact that it is written in Latin suggests an ecclesiastic rather than a lawyer, maybe a non-Welshman. Textual evidence suggests that it was probably written in south-west Wales."

Note the tapered legs, arm rests and high back. Who knows what woods were used but my money would be on ash and elm?

Monday 6 November 2023

Bobbin turned side chair - WS229


Bobbin-turned side chair, possibly Dutch - WS229

Quite fortuitously I happen to be in Grantham in the middle of January of 2023 and decided to call at Goldings, the Grantham auctioneers, even though it was not a day designated for viewing. I asked if it was possible to view the furniture for the forthcoming sale and luckily my wish was granted. The chair pictured above immediately caught my attention and a few days later, after a bidding battle during the auction, I was delighted to purchase it. 

There is absolutely nothing that I would associate with Lincolnshire incorporated into this chair, indeed I cannot remember seeing another remotely like it before. I had been instantly struck by the amount of work that had gone into its production: the wood used was either cherry or some other fruitwood. Every component was contemporary, though there were two metal brackets to help support the seat rails where they met the back legs. In terms of dating the chair, my initial impression was mid-18th century. The finials at the top of the back legs pointed towards Holland and the Low Countries as chairs made there almost invariably have this feature. However, more research needs to be done to establish its origin.

© William Sergeant 2023

Typical Lincolnshire spindleback chair - WS228


WS228 Lincolnshire Windsor armchair with 9 long spindles attributed to Roger and Sophia Taylor workshop

The county of Lincolnshire has a great tradition of making spindleback Windsor chairs. Their understated elegance, economy of design and pleasing proportions make them timeless items of furniture which would grace any room. There are plenty on my Flickr feed to choose from and after many years of researching the tradition, I still find chairs which are new to me. Please take a moment to study this one.

It was while visiting a Newark antique centre that I spotted this one for sale at a very reasonable price. There is no maker's name stamp, every component is fashioned from ashwood and it's in remarkably good condition. Everything points to a standard Lincolnshire spindleback Windsor chair, produced at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But which workshop did it come out of? I knew that I had seen those underarm supports before and after a little bit of research I realised that they were the same as picture WS160, which is signed TAYLOR Grantham. 

What surprised me was the fact that every other signed TAYLOR spindleback chairs have only 8 long spindles and 6 short ones. This is, I believe, the very first time that a 9 long and 8 short spindle pattern has ever been recorded.

I have little doubt that it was manufactured in the workshop of Roger and Sophia Taylor during the period 1801 - 1810.

© William Sergeant 2023

Tuesday 31 October 2023

East Anglian chairs - WS 227

Please study the two rush seated chairs which I acquired at completely different times. The left hand one still has large areas of original green paint, very old rushing which has seen much use and a mixture of turned and shaped components. The front leg is rather well produced, with a pronounced offset turning to give a well defined foot. I have seen other similar front legs but had no idea where they were made, though I suspected it was somewhere close to Lincolnshire. 

The right hand chair was offered for sale at Golding Young in Lincoln during March 2023 and was knocked down to me for a hammer price of £75. I had not been to the viewings but I was delighted when I collected it next day, even the auctioneer commented that this well made chair had caught his eye. It had obviously come from a good home and been well cared for, being re-rushed a long time ago and well polished. The wood used was either cherry or some other fruit wood and judging by the craftsmanship that was employed to make the turned pieces, it had come from a very accomplished workshop. 

I will leave it up to the reader to assess the similarities between the two chairs.

One of the benefits of being a member of the Regional Furniture Society is that most other members are keen furniture historians. It was through the society that I meet Robert Williams, who lives just to the north of Cambridge and we have exchanged information on our respective regional chair collections over many years. A defining feature that he believes is common among his local chairs is the change in diameter of the back leg, above seat level. This is not a feature that I have ever seen on chairs that I associate with Lincolnshire rush seated chairs. He even has evidence to link this design pattern to Mendlesham in Suffolk. His immediate impression, when I shared some images with him, was that it indeed was from East Anglia.

© William Sergeant October 2023

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Chair Turners in the Chilterns

I spotted this 1930 newspaper clipping on eBay and acquired it. The photos show chair turners in the woods. I am not a fan of the term 'bodger' and cannot do better than quote Dr B. D. Cotton, The English Regional Chair (Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, 1990) p. 39 to explain why:

The term ‘bodger’ appears to be a popular twentieth century name applied to turners who worked in the woodland using pole lathes. However, this term, which is usually applied to someone who ‘bodges’ or ‘botches’ his work, producing a poor result, seems a singularly inappropriate term to apply to these excellent craftsmen, and was a description probably not known to the original turners. This is reinforced since no reference to ‘bodgers’ is made in the Census returns for the High Wycombe area in either 1841 or 1851, although a few references are made in these returns to workers recorded in ‘hut in woods’. This probably refers to turners working in the woodland setting. The introduction of the word ‘bodger’ is probably a journalistic term introduced by writers in the early twentieth century when describing this craft, a word which has been erroneously repeated in subsequent texts.

Nonetheless the pictures are excellent. 

From The Times Weekly Edition 23 October 1930 

Dr Cotton on their way of life (pp. 39-40)

Although High Wycombe was the centre for creating many of the chair parts and assembling the completed chairs, most of the ordinary turnery work of producing the legs and stretchers required by the manu­facturers, was undertaken by turners who lived in villages and hamlets of the Chiltern Hills, close to the source of wood, and who sold their work to the factory owners. This turnery trade arose particularly a few miles to the north west of High Wycombe in the forested hills in the area of Stokenchurch, Chinnor, Bledlow Ridge, Princes Risborough, Great Hampden, Radnage, and Beacon’s Bottom. In the late nineteenth century, the turners bought their wood at annual sales of standing timber which was sold by auction at the Stokenchurch Hotel. Here, estate owners would offer a ‘fall’ of twelve to twenty beech trees which, when sold, would be felled by the vendor, usually during the winter when the sap was low. The turners would then be responsible for sawing the trunks into lengths suitable for leg and stretcher turning, and lopping and burning up the unwanted branches. Some of these turners preferred to make a rough shelter at the woodland site from wood, bracken and the woodshavings they produced. Here, the turner used a froe or fromard to split the wood and a side axe to roughly shape the section. Then a draw knife, used in conjunction with a simple wooden draw horse, was used to further shape the segments, and the green wood was finally turned on a pole lathe. The resulting unseasoned, turned legs and stretchers were stacked in neat piles or poked into a ‘hedgehog’ of legs to dry. The lives of woodland turners [...] must have been lonely, although an insight into one chair turner’s thoughts and life, when looking back over the years, is sensitively given by Mr George Dean, brother of Owen Dean of Great Hampden, who was one of the last turners to work in the Chiltern Woodland. George Dean expressed himself thus:

‘It was a strangely enjoyable life, carefree and a bit lonesome if your mate was away. In the spring it was lovely as the trees took on their fresh green leaf, and in the winter, the sighing of the wind and the sight of the birds gathering in the branches when the smoke ascended at meal times. Occasionally the robins would build by the lathe side in the thatch, and hatch the eggs and rear the young. Now and then a wren would make a cosy nest and flit about. Once a flock of pigeons descended on the trees round our shops just after dark. The noise of their flapping wings was alarming as they settled in the tree tops, too exhausted to heed us very much as we worked by candlelight in our primitive way.  

However, the majority of the turners preferred to work in a shed near to their homes, rather than work in the woodland, and to use a metal foot-treadled lathe, with a reciprocating flywheel, rather than a pole lathe [...] Elderly relatives of craftsmen who remember the chair turning trade in the village of Radnage recall that it was the children’s job to push freshly turned legs into the hedges around the cottage gardens to dry, and then to count them into sacks ready for the chair manufacturers from High Wycombe, who collected them by horse and cart.

From The Times Weekly Edition 23 October 1930

Detail of the side axe in use:

From The Times Weekly Edition 23 October 1930

Detail of the pole lathe in use:

From The Times Weekly Edition 23 October 1930

 © Julian Parker 2021 with thanks to Dr B. D. Cotton.

Monday 30 August 2021

Windsors starring on the set in 'Dead of Night' (1945)

My old friend Paul Noakes is a man with a great eye for detail and brilliant at clocking unusual items in strange contexts and unexpected places. His latest great spot is some Windsor chairs centre stage on the set of 'Dead of Night', a 1945 Ealing Studios horror production.

Publicity poster

Publicity poster

Much of the action in the film takes place in the sitting room of a house in the country. The room has two fine Windsor chairs.

Front view of Googie Withers sitting in Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire high smoker's Windsor; rear view of 18th century mahogany Windsor. L-R Anthony Baird as Hugh Grainger, Judy Kelly as Joyce Grainger, Roland Culver as Eliot Foley, Googie Withers as Joan Cortland, Mary Merrall as Mrs Foley and Frederick Valk as Dr. Van Straaten.

The 18th century mahogany Windsor is an uncommon type which I knew I had seen before.

Front view of 18th century mahogany Windsor. L-R: Frederick Valk as Dr. Van Straaten, Anthony Baird as Hugh Grainger, Googie Withers as Joan Cortland and Sally Ann Howes as Sally O'Hara.

Rear three-quarter view of 18th century mahogany Windsor, showing symmetrical bladed underarm support. Mervyn Johns as Walter Craig about to strangle Frederick Valk as Dr. Van Straaten.

The rear view jogged my memory of this chair sold by a Guernsey auctioneer in 2017. It is the same rare type.
'Garrick Chair' © Martel Maides 2017

The lot description read: "The Garrick Chair - a fine George II mahogany comb back Windsor arm chair, the back with a shaped and scratch moulded top rail, over bold, out-scrolled arms, the broad, shaped seat raised on four cabriole legs with pad feet, united by turned stretchers, 43¾in. (111cm.) high to top of back, 31in. (78.5cm.) max. width, 17¾in. (45cm.), height to seat. This is known as 'The Garrick Chair', and was reputedly bought at Mrs. Carr's 1839 sale at Garrick's Villa (previously Hampton House), whose husband Thomas Carr succeeded the famous English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick in the villa at Hampton near Richmond."

The history of Garrick's villa after his death in 1779 may be found here.

Similar mahogany chair © Woolley & Wallis 10 January 2018: A George III mahogany Windsor armchair, the comb top rail above a stick back and scroll arms, on cabriole legs united by an 'H' stretcher.

A further chair of this type was sold at Christie's New York on 21 March 2015 for $22,500: 
With scroll-carved cresting and out-curved arms above a saddle seat on cabriole legs joined by stretchers."

The other chair which features in these scenes is a Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire (or more rarely Thames Valley) high smoker's Windsor.

Dr B D Cotton in The English Regional Chair (1990) at p. 94 re Figure TV222: 

"Best high smoker’s Windsor chair. Beech with elm top hoop, arms, raised arm section and seal, fruitwood splat. Attributed to High Wycombe, c. 1850-80. This form of chair was also made extensively in the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire region [...] the Wycombe made versions are often characterised in having particularly vase shaped legs and narrower turnings to those adopted in the North. A number of the Wycombe manufacturers made this style of chair, an example of which is shown in the catalogue of Glenister and Gibbons (fl. 1865-79) [...] The cost of this style of chair was 8/- (40p) at the time that the catalogue was produced."

At pp. 193-4 Dr Cotton expands:

"The following group of [high back smokers'] chairs is typical of Yorkshire chairs made from the 1830s until about 1900, particularly in the major centres of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. These are the high back splat Windsors which are characterised in having a sawn and shaped three-part arm [...] and are the largest of all the English Windsor chairs, made with heavy individual parts and large seats. These Windsors were called ‘smoking high’ chairs by the Nottinghamshire makers,and 'best high back smokers’by the Yorkshire makers. In recent years, broad arm’ Windsor has become common as a descriptive term, since it focuses on the relative distinction between the continuous bent narrow arm bow, typical of many Windsors, and the broad flattened shape utilised in the smoking high chairs.

The relatively large number of these chairs which has been recorded with makers’ stamps probably indicates both the popularity of this design, and the strong competition which existed between makers in the industrial towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire. This style of chair was made in a hierarchy of woods in the same way as those made in the Worksop, Nottinghamshire tradition where yew was the most prestigious wood, with cherry or alder next, and ash and elm being the least expensive option."

Front view of Googie Withers as Joan Cortland with Mervyn Johns as Walter Craig by the Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire high smoker's Windsor.

Front view of Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire high smoker's Windsor. L-R: Googie Withers as Joan Cortland, Frederick Valk as Dr. Van Straaten and Anthony Baird as Hugh Grainger.

Rear view of Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire high smoker's Windsor. L-R: Roland Culver as Eliot Foley, Googie Withers as Joan Cortland and Judy Kelly as Joyce Grainger.

An example from Yorkshire:

Yorkshire high smoker's Windsor stamped J Watson (of Skipton, Yorkshire).

An example from Nottinghamshire:

Nottinghamshire high smoker's Windsor stamped I Allsop (of Worksop, Nottinghamshire) © Museum of the Home

One other high back Windsor makes a fleeting appearance.

Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire Windsor, Naunton Wayne as Barry Potter

My thanks to Paul Noakes for spotting these chairs.

© Julian Parker 2021

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from the workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; front view

This chair turned up in a south Lincolnshire auction in October 2020: even were it not stamped 'MARSH', there are several features which point to Thomas Marsh and his son James. That linked post, which has more biographical details about Thomas (1777 or 1779-1844) and James (1803 - 1870) shows a stamped side chair with the 6 bobbin stretcher. Marsh is the only workshop stamp that has been found with such a stretcher.

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; 3/4 view

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; side view

The small chamfer at the end of the terminals of the arm bow is another characteristic Marsh workshop feature. The circular scribe line just visible on the side stretchers to mark the junction point with the cross stretchers is another Marsh workshop habit.

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; rear view

Another Marsh workshop practice was to pin some of the long sticks with small square wooden pins from the rear of the bows: this chair has two such pins to secure 2nd and 7th long sticks to the back bow, 3 sets of holes for two more, missing the pins, on the 3rd and 6th long sticks (1st at the top in the back bow, 2nd in the arm bow and 3rd in the seat), two more, still with pins, to secure the back bow to the arm bow, and finally 4 more holes, two in the back bow and two in the seat, which appear to have been drilled in the wrong place as they do not align with any of the long sticks, unlike their companions. A momentary lapse of concentration on a Friday afternoon, perhaps.

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; view from above

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; detail of arm turning

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; view from below with detail of leg turnings and stretchers

Lincolnshire bow back stick back Windsor armchair, 8 long sticks, 6 short, turned underarm supports, straight seat sides, ring and cove turned front legs with lower ring, H stretcher with 6 round bobbins, stamped MARSH, from workshop of MARSH SLEAFORD; detail of stamp.

The top part of each letter of 'MARSH' is just visible at the back of the seat. There does not appear to be any sign of the 'SLEAFORD' stamp that appears on some Marsh chairs. A pair of side chairs, one of which was exhibited at the exhibition in Alford in 2019 has 'MARSH' stamped on one seat and 'SLEAFORD' on the other. All parts of this chair are of ash.

© Julian Parker 2021

Friday 16 April 2021

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped WILSON GRANTHAM, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, 3/4 view

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, view from above
Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, detail of arm turning 

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, side view

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, rear view

Lincolnshire bow back spindle back armchair stamped Wilson Grantham, with 8 long spindles, 6 short, turned underarms, straight seat sides, ring and cove front leg turnings, plain back legs, H stretcher with darts, stamp

For a short piece about John Wilson (1779 - 1837) see this post.

© Julian Parker 2021

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Antonio Debertolis: an Austrian Chairmaker in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia: Terence Lane

Antonio Debertolis Memorial, Drouin Cemetery, Gippsland, Victoria

This article, which appeared in the Gippsland Heritage Journal No. 24 (2000) is reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Terence Lane, together with Linda Barraclough & Meredith Fletcher of the Gippsland Heritage Journal.

M. R. M. Smith, in his 1968 reminiscences of old Drouin, gives a tantalizing firsthand account of the Austrian chairmaker, Antonio Debertolis, who lived and worked in Drouin at the turn of the century:

One of our neighbours in these days was an elderly Italian, though he might have been a Greek, named Antonio Derbertolis (sic) (generally known as ‘Old Antoney’) who was a positive genius at manufacturing chairs and other household furniture out of blackwood (for the frames) and rushes for the seats, etc. The principal tool which I recall his using was a spokeshave with which he used to shape the wood, and I spent very many happy hours in his workshop watching him. He was a small man, somewhat stooped and bent, with curly hair going grey and with ear-rings in his ears - the ears were pierced, of course. My wife and I still have two of his chairs and a foot-stool which he made for my mother many years ago. In his work Antoney did not use screws, nails or glue and in their place wonderfully shaped wooded dowels held the frames together. The chairs which we have are very light in weight but very strong and never, in all the years we have had them, have the chairs or the foot­ stool required any attention by way of repairs, even though they have suffered some very hard use over the years from three generations of small children.1

Time has not been kind to Antonio Debertolis. His name was better remembered in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and in more recent years he has posthumously suffered the indignity of having his chairs misattributed to a number of other makers. The tide appears to have turned, though, and in 1998 two of his chairs, together with a biographical outline, were correctly published in Kevin Fahy and Andrew Simpson’s definitive Australian Furniture: Pictorial History and Dictionary, 1788-19382

Antonio Debertolis was neither Italian nor Greek, as M.R.M. Smith suggested. He was in fact an Austrian, born in 1849 or 1850 in Tonadico, a village in the Dolomites, at that time in the southern region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now part of Italy. It is not known when or why he left Austria, but he arrived in the Colony of Victoria from Wellington, New Zealand, in March 1877. He was naturalised in 1893, his application stating that he was a labourer and that he had been living in Drouin for fifteen of his sixteen years in the Colony.3 In the years 1883-84, 1884-85 and 1885-86 he was registered as a ratepayer and occupier of 43 acres of Crown Land in the Parish of Drouin West,4 and in 1884-85 the Gippsland directory listed him as a farmer.5 Towards the end of his life he was living in Drouin, and the Warragul and District Historical Society has located his house, now demolished, in Young Street, on the outskirts of the town.6 When he died in February 1913 at the age of 63, his occupation was again given as ‘labourer’.7 He was a Roman Catholic and, apparently, a bachelor, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Catholic section of Drouin Cemetery.8

The bare contemporary details of Debertolis’ life make no reference to his principal claim to fame, the craft of chairmaking that he must have practised on quite a scale during his years in Gippsland. His chairs belong firmly to what has been called ‘the Latin slat-back chair’9 tradition, the ‘open frame’ cottage chair idiom of the Mediterranean and other European countries, extending through colonization across the globe. The completeness with which Debertolis transferred the Austro/North Italian tradition to Gippsland is demonstrated by a comparison of one of his baluster-splat chairs (plate 1) with a chair of the same type and about the same date (plate 2) from the Treviso region of Italy, just a short distance from his birthplace. 

Plate 1: Debertolis chair, blackwood, c.1900.
Private collection, Melbourne.

Plate 2: Chair from Treviso region, c.1900.
Private collection, Treviso.

The similarities are striking, even down to the smallest details, such as the outswept top rail and the taper of the feet. This was the ancient craft of the rural or village chairmaker, before the production line and the division of labour - a craft that was completely transportable and, therefore, ideally suited to the itinerant or emigrant craftsman. Debertolis’ tools would have been of the simplest kind - an axe and saw for cutting timber in the bush, wedges and a mallet for cleaving it into manageable lengths, a drawknife or spokeshave for shaping the members, a drill and brace and bit for making rail and stretcher ends and sockets, and a knife for cutting rushes in the local creeks and swamps. There is no evidence that he owned anything as sophisticated as a lathe.

Debertolis chairs are always of blackwood, presumably ‘found’or cut green in the bush. Often he used the sapwood, which was lighter in density than commercial dressed timber and sometimes had a colourful striped appearance. The legs and uprights are generally square-in-section, and tapered, with chamfered edges. The stretchers and rails are usually round in section, either spokeshaved or made from saplings or thin branches, with natural bends and kinks, which would only have to be scraped of their bark. As M.R.M. Smith noted, Debertolis used no screws, nails and glue: slats were secured between rails or uprights with traditional mortise and tenon joints; arm posts, seat rails and stretchers were firmly held in sockets drilled right through the arm rests, legs and uprights rather than concealed; and wooden pegs reinforced the uppermost joints of those chairs with outswept top rails. Although seagrass seats are often found on Debertolis chairs, it seems that all his chairs were originally rush-seated. Excavated original seats have been found to be stuffed with blackwood chips and shavings.10

Five designs of Debertolis chairs, distinguished by the treatments oftheir backs, have been recorded. They are listed in order of rarity, from the most to the least common:

• Twin, opposing, triangular-shaped horizontal splats, pointing inwards, with the slats secured between the uprights. Types: chair, child’s chair and child’s high chair, (plate 3)

Plate 3: Debertolis chair, blackwood, c.1900.
Private collection, Melbourne.
• Thin, vertical slats, secured between the top rail and cross rail. Types: chair (three slats), child’s chair (three slats), armchair (four, five or six slats) and settle (seventeen slats), (plate 4)

Plate 4: Debertolis chair, blackwood, c.1900.
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.
• Twin, opposing, serpentine, vertical slats, secured between the top rail and the cross rail. Types: chair and armchair, (plate 5)

Plate 5: Debertolis chair, blackwood, c.1900.
Private collection, Melbourne.

• Pierced baluster-shaped splat, secured between the top upright and cross rail. Types: chair (one splat) and settle (five splats).(plate 1)

• Ladderback, with horizontal slats secured between the uprights. Types: chair (three slats) and armchair (four slats).

One of Debartolis’ printed paper labels has survived (ANTONIO DEBERTOLIS/ Maker, Drouin/ Every Chair is Guaranteed for Rough Ware), and a rectangular white enamel label, with black lettering, has been sighted.11

The number of surviving chairs testifies to the strength of their construction and to a wide production. Debertolis apparently catered to both the Gippsland (local and tourist) and Melbourne markets - the latter supplied by the Malvern furniture dealer, E. J. Smith.12 Debertolis chairs no doubt found their way into many a Gippsland farmhouse, but also had a following in the towns, amongst the local gentry and in the metropolis. Without postulating a brilliant career for Debertolis - quite the opposite - he was in some ways the right man in the right place at the right time, in that rush-seated chairs of honest construction had been promoted internationally since the 1860s, when William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, launched his open­ framed, rush-seated ‘Sussex’ chairs as an alternative to the carved, veneered, French-polished and heavily upholstered contortions of ‘the Trade’. In the late 1880s Morris’follower, Ernest Gimson, revived another rustic classic, the rush-seated ladderback chair, which went on to become a staple of the turn of the century Arts and Crafts interior. The ’90s were the time of ‘the great cleanout’ of the cluttered, heavily upholstered and accessoried interiors of the late Victorian period. This decade also saw the awakening of interest in folk art, and the growing appreciation of traditional furniture forms. These European developments soon reached the design­ conscious elite in the Colonies, and by 1887 we find the author, Ada Cambridge, furnishing the St Kilda home of her Aesthetic heroine with rush-seated chairs, in her story, ‘Human Perversity’.13 The cabinet maker and art furnisher must have been pleased to know that they only had to run down to Mr Smith’s in Malvern Road, or send the buggy down to Drouin, to get a near equivalent (plate 4) of the oak and rush-seated armchair shown by Walter Cave at the 1896 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London.14 (plate 6) 

Plate 6: Armchair by Walter Cave exhibited at the 1896 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, London. Reproduced in The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, November 1896, p. 119.

And in 1908 the Melbourne architect, Robert Haddon, could almost have been talking of ‘Old Antoney’s’ chairs when he recommended, in his Australian Architecture, rush-seated chairs of medium weight for breakfast rooms.15

From our vantage point at the beginning of the 21st century, it is possible to make quite an impressive list of original Debertolis chair owners. Theatrical entrepreneur, George Coppin, owned pattern 1 chairs, as did artist Frederick McCubbin, who showed his daughter Sheila sitting on one of them in the kitchen at Fontainebleau, Mount Macedon, in his picture, Shelling Peas (c. 1913).16 Artist and National Gallery of Victoria Director (Director 1892-1935), Bernard Hall, owned chairs of patterns 1 and 5 and featured them in his still lives and interiors. Architect Rodney Alsop had a set of chairs of pattern 2. Both Hall and Alsop, like Robert Haddon, were involved with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Melbourne in the years around 1900. Hall was a contributor to the three issues of Arts and Crafts, published in Melbourne in 1895, 1896 and 1898, and Haddon and Alsop were foundation committee members of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria in 1908, Haddon as Vice-President and Alsop as a Council Member. Their patronage supports claims of a wider market for Debertolis chairs in Arts and Crafts circles in Victoria, and might explain the timely parallels between Debertolis’ patterns 2 and 5 and the latest overseas Arts and Crafts designs emerging from Great Britain, for example, Gimson’s and Cave’s designs, and America, for example, Gustav Stickley’s.

Debertolis chairs were still prized after his death, and in 1920, when Helen Pearson of Kilmany Park, near Sale, married William Borthwick, of Raeshaw, Fulham, her mother presented her with a large set of pattern 1 Debertolis chairs. When the Melbourne bookseller, Margareta Webber, opened her Little Collins Street shop in 1931, she furnished with Debertolis chairs. The chairs were still there when she retired in 1971. Other second and third generation admirers and owners of Debertolis chairs include the collector, Dr Helen Sexton, the Austrian sculptor, Karl Duldig, the zoologist and writer, Jock Marshall, the jeweller, Matcham Skipper, and the architect, Roy Grounds.

Using the time-honoured designs and methods of his homeland and the native timber and rushes of his adopted land, Antonio Debertolis bridged continents and cultures and created several classic Australian chairs. Those who have the good fortune of living with his chairs never tire of their lively, forthright designs and beautiful, faceted surfaces. In time their maker will be recognised as one of the most interesting craftsmen to have worked in Gippsland.

Graham Nichols, Ruth Dwyer, Ross Newton Smith.


1. M. R. M. Smith, ‘Reminiscences of Drouin’ (typescript), 1968. I am indebted to Denise Nest, Warragul and District Historical Society, and Patrick Morgan, Monash University College Gippsland, for this reference.

2. K.Fahy and A. Simpson, Australian Furniture: Pictorial History and Dictionary, 1788-1938, Sydney, 1998, p. 43; pis. 122, 185.

3. Naturalisation papers of Antonio Debertolis, Series A712/1, item 93/V806, National Archives of Australia.

4. Information from Carlo Moscato, Drouin, 23 September 1988.

5. Middleton & Maning, Gippsland Directory, 1884-85, Melbourne, J. J. Miller, 1886, p. 102.

6. Denise Nest, Warragul and District Historical Society, to Patrick Morgan, Monash University College Gippsland, 25 October 1991. Patrick Morgan to author 6 December 1991.

7. ‘Deaths in the District of Warragul’, no. 991/ 3892, Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Melbourne.

8. Denise Nest to Patrick Morgan.

9. Mobilia, no. 315-16, 1983, pp. 51-62.

10. Information from Graham Nicholls, 22 June 1995.

11. Ibid.

12. The firm, established in 1892 by Edward J Smith, was renamed E. H. Smith & Son in c.1955.

13. Illustrated Australian News, 21 December 1887. 

14. The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, November 1896, p. 119.

15. R.J. Haddon, Australian Architecture, Melbourne, 1908, p.191.

16. Private collection, courtesy of Lauraine Diggins Fine Art. Reproduced in Jane Clark, ‘A Happy Life: Frederick McCubbin’s Small Paintings and Oil Sketches, National Gallery of Victoria and Ballarat Fine Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1991, no. 37, and Graham Cornall, Memories, Perth, 1990, p.171.

Terence Lane is a senior curator of Australian Art to 1900 at the National Gallery of Victoria. He would welcome hearing from anyone with more information on Antonio Debertolis or of his surviving chairs.

Friday 19 February 2021

1718 - 1729 The comparative value of an early 18th century Windsor chair

The Regional Furniture Society 2018 Journal included an article about the earliest known Windsor chair maker ever recorded, Joseph Newton of Fenton, Lincolnshire, who placed two advertisements in the Stamford Mercury during 1725 and 1729. In 1725 he stated that his chairs could be found for viewing at Newark and Grantham, along with the price of an individual chair, namely 7s 6d each, plus an extra 6d if transport by water to Lincoln was required. In the 1729 advertisement his chairs could be found for viewing at Newark, Grantham and Nottingham, the cost remaining 7s 6d, but the water transport to Nottingham, Gainsborough or Lincoln now being only 3d. He also stated that he had furnished a great many Gentlemen and Gardeners with his chairs: this implies that he was producing substantial Windsor chairs for use in the garden, often referred to as Forest chairs.

It can be difficult to exactly gauge the comparative value of an individual chair in the context of when it was produced. An inspection of the Lincoln archives catalogue by fellow researcher Julian Parker revealed the following entry:

Lincoln Cathedral Library: Account Book including: coroners' verdicts 1660; household accounts 1718-1729;  inventories of goods of Bishop Sanderson (1663) and Anne Sanderson (1669). Account book including: debts owed by and inventories of Robert Sanderson (bishop's son) 1663-1667; household accounts 1681-1709; rent accounts 1826-1866; tenancy agreements 1860. Loose papers 1674-1822. Date: 1660-1866 Repository: Lincolnshire Archives [057]Date: 1660-1866 D&C/LIB/21

This looked promising: handwritten notes and accounts from exactly the period came to hand. It had been written by various people over many years, recording prices paid for services, food and various objects. Within the folio are 38 pages of neatly written notes, recording the weekly household expenditure between Ladyday (26th March) 1718 until September 1722. An entry for the week ending 20th March 1719 gives a clue as to the writer, here it states " clothes and other things for Mr Caudwell " for a value of £7-5s-9d and the next line reveals " clothes and other things for myself " for £5-16s-9d. This would indicate that the ledger was being kept Mrs Caudwell as housekeeper for her husband. 

Records elsewhere reveal that a William Caudwell was vicar at Flitton, Bedfordshire from 1671 for 51 years and died on 20 September 1722. This fits exactly with the accounts as immediately after that date, the writer records moving to board at Pulloxhill which is adjacent to Flitton. Also, in the accounts there are references to Silso and Ampthill, which are close by as well. It would appear that Mr Caudwell had held a position of some considerable importance at Lincoln Cathedral towards the end of his life. At this period Flitton was, perhaps remarkably to the modern eye, part of the Diocese of Lincoln.

Within the 38 pages is a simple entry which unwittingly helps us hugely in judging the value of one of Newton's chairs. During the week of 25th July 1720, the author "paid the carpenter for a day's work" the amount of 1s-6d. We will probably never know the name of this tradesman but as he is denoted as a carpenter then it's fair to assume that he was someone who had completed an apprenticeship and was now working as a journeyman or even a master. This also directly implies that if he had been employed for 5 days then the earnings would have been exactly 7s-6d, the same price as one of Newton's chairs. Here then, we have the direct equivalent value of a locally-made Forest chair from a primary source. A similar entry is made on 2nd February 1718 where it is noted that Jack Pepper was paid one shilling for a day's work. It is telling that no trade or profession is associated with his name and it could be that he was paid for a day's labouring, which would equate to two thirds of a carpenter's day rate.

There is one more simple entry that will intrigue the furniture historian, namely that on 6th October 1718 two words are clearly written: " chair bottoming " followed by the sum of 3½d. Was this the sum paid to a local tradesman or a peripatetic artisan in return for renewing the rushing on a simple turnpin chair?

Update: William mentioned the carpenter's 1s 6d during the Zoom discussion after Julian Parker's RFS lecture on Early Lincolnshire Chairs in February 2021. A few days later, Jeremy Rycroft, a fellow RFS member kindly wrote the following observations:

"I inevitably started thinking about costs of manufacture and pricing of chairs.

The charge of 1/6d per day for a master craftsman working 'on site' should represent his earning power as a master and you might say it covers his labour costs plus an allowance for travel and maintaining tools. That could mean he might not earn quite as much in a workshop.

The prices quoted for chairs of 7/6d (was that delivered and the basic price 7/-.) has to cover a range of things:
- cost of wood - or cost of maintaining one's own coppice
- wages costs
- overheads of running a workshop
- a margin which hopefully would equate to significantly more than 7/6 per week for the owner  based on a weekly throughput of numbers of chairs.

The wages costs could be of apprentices and/or journeymen and so lower than 1/6 a day. However when you consider wood and a share of workshop overheads and management costs/profit, I suspect the owner would be trying to recover more than 1/6 per day, per employee. This suggests to me very strongly that he would need to be able to finish a chair with less than 5 days labour.

The other circumstantial evidence is that he promised to deliver within the week, I think. You have to create a stock level for deliveries and then replenish as orders come in. You may be able to call on outworkers to supplement manufacture when demand was high, and lay off some staff when it drops. However, even with the option of 'sub-contract labour', you will run up a backlog of orders if you cannot complete chairs in a little less than the promised week (to allow for delivery).

I think it would be sensible to think that a chair might take about four days' labour. 

I think the speed of a craftsman in his 20's or 30's regularly doing the same chair-making processes for maybe years would just be so much faster than someone doing a range of processes for bespoke orders in his later life. (Life expectancy is I think quoted as being not much over 40 in the early 18th century, although this includes the 1/8th of the population that died within 12 months of birth, so first year survivors on average lived till about 46, I calculate. But assuming a working life of 20-40 years for a craftsman seems reasonable.)

If you watch a really good blacksmith or 'chair seat rusher', or wood carver, or straw dolly maker or even knitter (!) they are pretty fast and look it. Most of us probably type no faster than 20 words per minute, unless we have had training; in the companies where I have worked 40 words per minute got a basic proficiency award, but top secretaries could do over 60 wpm. The record is apparently around 300 wpm! Shorthand has a similar spread - with say 100 wpm being a basic standard but to do Hansard you needed to do 200 wpm!!)
In an age that doesn't really depend on large amounts of manual labour and manual dexterity, I think we have forgotten how fast and accurate skilled craftsmen were, and probably had to be to guarantee work for their families. When my grandfather visited the US, he was surprised to discover that to join the Bricklayers Union you had to achieve a particular rate of laying bricks - so even Unions were concerned about work rate!!"

© William Sergeant 2020 and Jeremy Rycroft 2021