In brief: Fancy, japanned and dyed light chairs in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Figure 1 Detail of a Gillows Lozenge back chair

In the late eighteenth century it was common for substantial houses to have ‘light’ chairs in bedrooms, lodging rooms, dressing rooms and breakfast rooms. ‘Light’ referred to their construction and weight; they could have arms or not.

Light chairs frequently had decorative japanned finishes on their frames, which were often of ash and beech. Japanning involved the use of opaque pigments mixed into resin-based varnishes to produce a groundwork in black, grey, green, white, purple or light blue. On the japanned surface occasionally elaborate designs in the form of floral decoration were applied. Such chairs were described as ‘fancy chairs’ or ‘fancy back chairs’. Alternatively, they had a cheaper finish such as staining or dyeing (a deeper form of staining) (New, 1991).

Makers of fancy, japanned and dyed chairs are often listed in late eighteenth century and nineteenth century trade directories for London and the Thames Valley, urban areas within North West England, Bristol and Exeter (Beard and Gilbert, 1986). The dispatch records of firms such as Gillows of Lancaster seldom use this terminology but on 29 March 1796 Gillows supplied ’12 elegant japanned armchairs bunches of flowers richly painted on the backs/fancy backs/canvas’d bottoms’ @40/- together with 12 canvas cushion @7/6 to Thomas Harris of Moseley Street, Manchester which probably relates to one of the few types of japanned and upholstered chairs supplied by Gillows. Such a description probably relates to the Lozenge back chair (fig. 1), illustrated in the November 1792 Estimate Sketch Book and the Colour Pattern Book (1775-1800). The elaborate floral decoration applied to the yellow japanned groundwork is probably reflected in the extra price charged to the customer for such a chair. (344/19, 344/96, 735/1)

By the following century many features of these earlier japanned and stained light chairs had become absorbed into nineteenth century regional traditions of rush-seated chair-making. By 1839 the term fancy chairs applied to chairs with frames made in relatively expensive fancy hardwoods such as rosewood, maple and satinwood.

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