Fancy, japanned and dyed light chairs in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (full article)

Examples of light chairs and the rooms in which they were used from documents of the time.

Fig.2 Treacher type splat back chair.

Figure 2 Treacher type splat back chair.

  1. One of the earliest descriptions of fancy back chairs was in 1786 when John Russell chairmaker to the royal household supplied ’14 fancy back chairs open cutt, shap(ed), feet with cane seats very neatly japanned green and white drawn into spriggs of flowers’ (PRO LC 11/1). This was followed in 1791 when he supplied ’12 fancy back chairs, very neatly drawn with flowers, painted and japan’d blue, green and white’ for the Princess Mary and Sophia. (BM, Add. MS 33, 342). John Russell was a London chairmaker, joiner, upholderer/ upholsterer and cabinetmaker. The term ‘open cutt’ maybe the same as open splat used by Gillows to describe fiddle back splats used on some of their upholstered mahogany chairs made in 1779.
  1. The 1790s billhead of William Treacher of High Wycombe describes him as a Windsor, dyed and fancy chair manufacturer which probably relates to different surface treatments applied to the open splat back chair. A rush-seated splat back version with dowel and socket joints and floral decoration against black groundwork, illustrated in Figure 2, probably originates from this workshop and has many similarities to the two rush-seated chairs included in a breakfast room setting featured in an engraving by W. Bond, published in May 1789, based on a painting by George Morland titled ‘The farmers visit to his married daughter in town’ (Fig 3).
  1. From the 1780s onwards, like William Treacher, Gillows supplied rush-seated rout chairs employing the wood turner’s skills, which were stained black or painted. Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 describes rout chairs as ‘Small painted chairs with rush bottoms, lent by cabinet makers for hire, as a supply of seats at general entertainments, or feasts hence their name rout chairs’. Such light chairs, where ease of mobility was necessary, may have served a dual purpose. On 26 August 1790 rout chairs were dispatched by Gillows to Mr Ewart’s house for use in the ‘back bedroom attic storey’, ‘front dressing room adjoining’ and ‘the servants room and garrets’ where they were probably kept in readiness for future social occasions downstairs in a reception room.
  1. Further references to light chairs, supplied as single chairs or armchairs, are to be found in Gillows eighteenth century Lancaster Waste Books, which record the primary stages in Gillows accounting system, covering a two way flow of transactions involving the names of customers, description and dispatch of furniture, unit prices and quantities, and the purchase of various materials and products occasionally involving imported hardwoods and rum. These earlier records not only emphasise the use of stains but the use of different coloured japanned groundwork on light chairs.

On 12 October 1788 light chairs were supplied by Gillows for different rooms in one of John Christian’s properties in Cumberland comprising ’36 very neat and light japanned chairs ornamented in different colours and varnished, matted bottoms (rush seats) @ 9/6′(ref 344/12). Such chairs probably include some of Gillows’ rush-seated japanned Cottage chairs with red ornamentation (fig. 4) and patera spindle back chairs (Figure 5) which were supplied to customers at a similar price.[1] This example of a patera spindle back made of ash still retains vestiges of its original green groundwork and was manufactured by outworkers such as John Harrison who supplied Gillows on 7 April 1792 with 6 of these chairs @3/8 according to the Petty Ledger (ref. 344/76).

Figure 5 Gillows ‘Patera spindle back’ chair

An entry in Gillows Lancaster Waste Book dated 29 March 1796 refers to the dispatch of ’12 elegant japanned armchairs bunches of flowers richly painted on the backs/fancy backs/canvas’d bottoms’ @40/- together with 12 canvas cushions @ 7/6′ to Thomas Harris of Moseley Street, Manchester.

On 9 May 1796 ’10 handsome japanned armchairs with cane bottoms fancy backs’ were dispatched to Sir William Gerard of New Hall, Garswood, Lancashire for his back drawing room @37/- and cushions @ 6/6. Such elaborately decorated cane seated chairs with canvas cushions, may refer to lozenge back (Fig. 1) or the Garforth pattern chairs, which were illustrated in Gillows Colour Pattern Book (1775-1800), and dispatched to customers at a price above the japanned armchair versions (refs. 344/19, 735/1).

  1. The basic configuration of some of Gillows light chairs may have been shared with various stained rush-seated chairs made in North West England during the nineteenth century. A typical example incorporating turned horizontal rail features, used on rush-seated patera spindle backs in 1792 and Liverpool spindle back chairs in 1801 made by outworkers for Gillows such as John Harrison, was the stained two row spindle back rush-seated chair made by Charles Leicester of Macclesfield, Cheshire between 1816-60 with turned horizontal supporting rails with miniature patera detail to support either end of the spindles.(Figure 5) Such outworkers with their own workshops in Lancashire and North Yorkshire probably shared many ideas with other chairmakers making a diversity of rush-seated chairs throughout the region to meet the broader demands and means of a rapidly expanding population during the nineteenth century.
  1. Rudolph Ackermann’s illustration (Plate 8) in his monthly magazine The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics etc., dated August 1814, ‘exhibits three designs of light chairs which were suitable for best bed chambers, for secondary drawing rooms and occasionally to serve for routs. These chairs may be stained black, or, as the present taste is, veined with vitriol, stained with logwood, and polished to imitate rose-wood, the seats caned’.

Claudius Loudon’s 1839 Encyclopaedia refers to certain types of rush seated bedroom chairs of ‘a light sort for common use’, which probably explains the continuity in the use of the terminology ‘light chairs’ (p.322).

By the nineteenth century many features of these japanned and stained light chairs had become absorbed into nineteenth century regional traditions of rush-seated chairmaking. Furthermore although trade directories suggest continuity in the manufacture of fancy chairs, Claudius Loudon’s edition of The Encyclopaedia of Cottage Farmhouse and Villa Architecture and Furniture published in 1839, indicates that the term fancy chairs now referred to chairs with frames made in relatively expensive fancy hardwoods such as rosewood, maple and satinwood followed by a coat of French polish. However, a hand-written annotation to the title page of the pattern book of Amos Caton (1864-1895) reads ‘Mr Amos Catton, Chair Manufacturer, High Wycombe, Bucks, Late Savage’ above a printed introduction reading ‘WM. COLLINS & SON Manufacturers of all kinds of CANE AND FANCY CHAIRS, In Birch, Cherry, Sycamore, Walnut, Oak and Mahogany Woods, or in imitation of the above woods’, probably using stain. Illustrations in the pattern book include ‘fancy-back willow seat chairs’ as well as ‘banister back rush-seat chairs’ probably for more modest dwellings, suggesting that a diverse customer base continued to be served by such firms throughout most of the nineteenth century.


City of Westminster Archive, Gillows Archive, Colour Pattern Book, 735/1; Waste Books 344/7-344/19; Petty Ledgers 344/71-344/76; Estimate Sketch Book 344/96. PRO LC 11/1. BM, Add. MS 33, 342.

Ackermann, R., The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufacturers, Fashions and Politics etc., August 1814

Agius, P. and Jones, S. (eds), Ackermann’s Regency Furniture & Interiors (Marlborough: Crowood, 1984)

Beard, G, and Gilbert, C. (eds), Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 (Leeds: Maney, 1986).

Boram J., ‘Eighteenth century fancy chairs from High Wycombe’, Regional Furniture, 13, 1999, 7-16

Boram, J., ‘Makers of dy’d, fancy and painted chairs’, Regional Furniture 24, 2010, 49-82

Boram, J., ‘A regional perspective on the innovative development of light chairs’ Regional Furniture 26, 2012, 149-176

Boram, J., ‘The domestic context for Gillows’ rush and cane seated chairs’, Regional Furniture 29, 2015, 47-100.

Gilbert, C., ‘The Amos Catton Pattern Book’, Regional Furniture 5, 1991, 60-8

Loudon, J.C., An Encyclopaedia of Cottage Farmhouse and Villa Architecture and Furniture, (London: Longman, 1839)

New, S., ‘The use of stain by furniture makers 1660-1850’, Furniture History 17, 1981, 51-60

[1] Patera spindle back chairs and drapery back chairs include roundels or a flattened side to ball shape detailing on the turned cross rails holding spindles in place and in the case of drapery backs the spindles support the horizontal drapery features. The term patera refers to roundels or circular discs applied to all types of furniture which were often carved or decorated and is derived from classical Roman and Greek traditions. The spindles sometimes feature vase shapes or include a further roundel or patera detail mid-way up each spindle.