What is a Windsor chair? This uniquely English chair is characterised by having a thick, one-piece, wooden seat into which the legs are mortised from below and the spindles forming the back-rest are slotted in from above. However, unlike other chairs, the back legs have no connection with the chair back. In essence, the Windsor chair can be thought of as a stool with a spindled back held together with wedges and pegs. The solid seat is frequently made of elm, a decoratively grained wood resistant to splitting. However, the legs, back-rest and arm-bow are usually of other native woods such as ash, beech, fruitwood (especially cherry), walnut and sometimes yew. Windsor side chairs (those without arms) and armchairs made in the 19th century have turned legs united by transverse and side stretchers and were often stamped with the maker’s name. By contrast, 18th century Windsors, especially those made in the Thames Valley region, often have cabriole legs and the makers are largely unknown. Very many 19th century Windsors also have a central back splat fretted out to form a wheel although other designs, such as the Prince of Wales feathers, are known. The back-rests of Windsor chairs also take various forms (i.e. comb-, bow-, gothic- and low-backs) and Windsors without a back splat are sometimes referred to as ‘stick-backs’.
Why were Windsor chairs made? In the early 18th century the gardens of country houses belonging to the gentry and aristocracy were changing from the formal layout of the 17th century to a more informal naturalistic style. Gardens were becoming places where tea might be taken, musical entertainments given and games, such as bowls, took place. Consequently, the large static seats of former times were unsuitable for socialising in these pleasure gardens and there was a need for portable seating. The Windsor chair being light in weight fulfilled this need, as is to be seen in contemporary paintings. Pictures show that these early Windsor chairs were frequently painted green both for waterproofing and to blend in with a garden environment. Moreover, recent research suggests that these garden Windsors were originally known as ’Forest’ chairs; this is probably because they were first made in the Forest of Windsor. Later on, Forest chairs shipped up the Thames to London came to be known as ‘Windsor’ chairs. In the 18th century a distinction was made between painted Forest chairs designed for outdoor use and stained and polished Windsor chairs made for indoor use. Today, however, both types of chair are referred to as ‘Windsor’ chairs.
When were Windsor chairs made? The main period of Windsor chair production was the 19th century. However the design originated in the early 18th century when it is thought that Windsors were often made in small workshops. The earliest known date relating to the supply of Forest chairs is currently 1720. Production, however, has never really ceased as Windsor chairs are still being made today. It is notable that some of the early Forest chairs seem to have been exported to the American colonies where they influenced the development of the slightly different but highly popular American Windsor.
Where were Windsor chairs made? In the 18th century Windsor chair makers are known to have been working in the Thames Valley, particularly in the area around Windsor itself and Slough. Unfortunately, very few 18th century makers are known by name and labelled chairs are extremely scarce. Larger furniture makers like Gillows of Lancaster are known to have supplied Windsor chairs in the 18th century and some Windsor chair makers were also situated in London. In the 19th century the area around High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire became a major centre of Windsor chair production, with turned legs and stretchers often supplied by outworkers (bodgers) who lived and worked in the Chiltern woods. There were also makers throughout the country, many of whom developed Windsors with their own decorative features. For example, West country chairs have a three-part arm bow and a ‘colt’s foot’ leg form which differ from chairs from the Thames Valley. Similarly, many Lincolnshire Windsors display distinctive leg turning that often differs from that seen in chairs from Nottinghamshire. Also, Windsors made in Mendlesham, Suffolk have rectangular back rests unlike any other Windsors. It is the study of these many individual and regional differences in chair design that is precisely the type of research that the Regional Furniture Society aims to undertake.
Further reading, Illustrations and exhibits:
Cotton, The English Regional Chair (Antique Collectors Club, 1990)
Crispin, The English Windsor Chair (Alan Sutton, 1992)
Harding-Hill, Windsor Chairs (Antique Collectors Club, 2003)
Parrott, Observations on the earliest known Windsor chairs, Regional Furniture, XIX (2005), pp. 1-19
Parrott, Forest chairs, the first portable garden seats and the probable origin of the Windsor chair, Regional Furniture, XXIV (2010), pp. 1-16
Sparkes, The English Country Chair (Spurbooks, 1973)
Wycombe Museum, Priory Avenue, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP13 6PX