An extremely rare pair of George II yew, elm and ash Gothic Windsor armchairs, Thames Valley, circa 1750  (2)

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Lot 185
An extremely rare pair of George II yew, elm and ash Gothic Windsor armchairs, Thames Valley, circa 1750

Sold for £ 22,500 (US$ 30,939) inc. premium
An extremely rare pair of George II yew, elm and ash Gothic Windsor armchairs, Thames Valley, circa 1750
Having a characteristic top bow made in two parts which join to form a Gothic arch with a scribed edge line, an elaborate Gothic fretted central splat and narrower upper and lower fretted splats to either side, the arm bow raised on short fretted splats and crook-shaped front supports, the elm bell-shaped seat with pronounced return corners and scribed edge line, raised on front cabriole legs with front fretted knee spandrels and pad feet, the straight-turned ash back legs with an unusual ball applied to the rear foot, [one lacking], the legs connected by a crinoline stretcher, one chair with branded inventory mark 'G K' stamped to the rear edge of the seat and again to the underside, (2)


  • Eighteenth century chairs, with Gothic shaped backs and pierced splats are often considered to represent the pinnacle of Windsor chair design, as fashionable items of furniture made in the first half of the 18th century and into the second half. They were made as both settee and armchair forms. Although now very rare, they were regularly made and listed in invoices by makers in St Paul's Churchyard from the second quarter of the 18th century. In 1734, for example, one invoice records 'Paid John Willis rect in Paul's Churchyard for 1 Windsor Settee with 4 seats, Two ditto with 3 seats each, and 8 single chairs at 6 ye seat £5.8.0. Pd' [Ref. George Bowes, London accounts 1733-34. Durham Record Office. D/Strathmore/V1390]

    Chairs of this type owe much to the Gothic revival in architecture and furniture which took place in the second quarter of the 18th century. This style was famously reflected in the home of Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797), who purchased a house at Strawberry Hill, London, and converted it into a cottage with Gothic tracery windows, which has become synonymous with this style of seating.

    The chairs made in London typically display a finesse and elegance which makes them as desirable today as they were originally. This pair of chairs are similarly well made and powerfully attractive in appearance, made largely in Yew (a wood reserved for Windsor 'Best' chairs) and gracefully shaped Elm seats. The rear legs are turned in Ash.

    However, careful examination of these chairs indicates that although made by a skilled craftsman, certain features point to him being perhaps a little less versed in their manufacture than those working in central London. These include a secure but uncommon way of fixing the point of the Gothic arch together. Here there is a complex interlocking joint rather than the more common inset narrow fillet of wood. Below this joint, a reeded line is incised into the edge of the arch (and also around the seat edge). This was imprecisely made with a chisel, and indicates that this maker did not have the specialised edge cutting tool (a 'Granny's tooth') which many Windsor chairmakers used to make a symmetrical groove. The entry of the central splat into the arch of Chair 2 [without inventory mark] shows, too, an inexact fit which simply indicates a measurement misjudgement on the part of the maker, rather than the use of a replacement part.

    The riving (splitting) marks which appear in different parts of the splats in both chairs are clear, for example in the back of the central splat in Chair 1 [with inventory mark], and interestingly shows evidence of this quick way of creating sections of wood, rather than the more accurate but laborious practice of sawing. Many Windsor chairs made in the 18th century, too, show evidence of a travisher (similar to a large spoke-shave) being used to remove wood quickly underneath the seat, and is evidenced by concave cut marks. The maker of these chairs clearly used a large frame saw, and left the irregular marks intact without further levelling.

    Typically Gothic armchairs have turned rear feet, but this maker chose to make a completely original design in the form of a straight turned leg, slightly flared at the base, and with a turned ball attached to the lower rear part of the leg. The purpose of this remains an enigma.

    The careful use of materials used in making these chairs is clear in the existence of long-departed wood-boring beetle holes either side of the seat in Chair 1. Such holes appear only in the outer sapwood of trees and indicate that this seat was made from a single plank of wood where the outer sapwood on both sides was retained to give the width required.

    The use of the total width of branches of Yew is similarly shown in the small outer back splats of Chair 2, where the yellow sapwood is seen both sides of the central brown heartwood, illustrating, again, an economic use of the available timber; as does the use of thin branches of yew, which, with their bark removed, were bent into shape to form the elegant curved arm supports.
    These chairs represent the making of eminently architecturally powerful chairs with a clear historical pedigree, and with the character produced by a skilled chairmaker whose slight imperfections in manufacture serve to enhance their qualities rather than producing a more sterile version of perfection.

    Dr B D Cotton. 2015
An extremely rare pair of George II yew, elm and ash Gothic Windsor armchairs, Thames Valley, circa 1750  (2)
An extremely rare pair of George II yew, elm and ash Gothic Windsor armchairs, Thames Valley, circa 1750  (2)
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