Art & Antiques, February 2003
The Spindled Throne by A true history of the Windsor chair in magazine-article form, with photographs of Duckloe Windsor chairs and settees, among others.
Look closely at a chair designed by George Nakashima, and in its shadow you’ll see an 18th-century Windsor chair, which he admired for its stark form and simple construction, notes Derek Ostergard, in George Nakashima: Full Circle The object of Nakashima’s admiration usually thought of as an American classic but is in fact English In origin and dates back to the beginning of the 18th century. Why the name Windsor? Legend has It that George I once found himself in a storm and took shelter in a humble cottage near Windsor Castle. The peasant offered him his best seat, which the king found so comfortable that he his cabinetmaker reproduce it.
Unfortunately, the tale is a fanciful one, not factual. Windsor chairs were first mentioned in a 1718 treatise on landscape gardening, and the earliest Windsors appear to have been used for rural sea on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Originally made of rough-hewn wood with bark-covered legs and a plank seat, chair makers gradually began using turned wood, removing the bark, curving the legs, thinning the seat and adding a splat to the spindle back. Initially used by the English upper classes for outdoor seating the chairs moved Indoors In the 1730s. Soon after the Windsor chair first appeared In England, it crossed the Atlantic to the American Colonies, arriving through the port of Philadelphia between 1726 and 1736. By the late 1740s, the city had become the center of Windsor chair-making.
Windsors are characterized by a saddle seat shaped with a depression on either side of a central low ridge into which spindles, armrests and legs have been mortised. No nails or screws were used. Lets usually connected to stretchers, frequently in the shape of an H, and splayed at a wide angle.They were then mortised to the seat close to the center, unlike the English version, in which the lets are mortised to the seat at the corners.
It is the back of a Windsor chair that creates its many variations. Earliest forms include lowback, which has turned the spindles and arms to curve out forming handholds. Another early style is the comb-back, easily recognized by a horizontal top or crest resembling a hayrack or large comb atop the tall, stately back. The bow-back is probably the most popular Windsor, with spindles contained within a curved, nearly semi-circular bow back.
The 1790’s saw the beginning of quantity reproduction. While the chair was now available to a broader segment of the population, the quality suffered. The chairs lost some of their grace and elegance as its makers relied more heavily on paint and decoration. During much of the 19th century, American vernacular furniture was not highly regarded, but as the country began to take pride in its history, a wave of patriotism brought a fresh appreciation for earlier designs. One of those leading the cheers was Wallace Nutting. A collector of Windsor chairs and author of A Windsor Handbook, published in 1917, he founded a factory in Framingham, Massachusetts, to make quality reproductions.
Today, there are few second thoughts about the appeal of Windsor chairs. “They are simple, comfortable and durable,” says New York dealer Frank Levy, who notes that antiques can range from $1,500 to $1,800 for side chairs and $5,000 and up for armchairs with no original paint, but jump to $2,500 and up for side chairs, and $5,500 and up for armchairs with original paint. A superb example can reach $100,000.
Nakashima designed several contemporary versions between the 1940s and ’80s. The earliest in 1944 was a straight-back chair that comes closest to the original. Later versions included the “Mira” (named for his daughter) in three heights, the “New” chair in 1955, which remains his most popular Windsor-inspired design, and the ’60’s “Conoid,” whose spindle back remained true to the original but whose twin legs on sled runners and cantilevered seat updated the classic design. A revised heavier “Conoid” with stronger elements to support the seat was Introduced in 1980. Robert Aibel, a Nakashima specialist, of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, says, “A Nakashima side chair can cost from $1,000 to $6,000.”
About the same time that Nakashima was designing his first Windsor-style chairs in America, Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner also was admiring the simplicity of the originals. Although his 1947 “Peacock” chair in pale wood is very much a mid- 20th century design; Its sweeping fan shaped spindle back is clearly Windsor.
Windsor chair adaptations are available at a variety of price levels starting at $500 for side chairs and $400 for armchairs. For anyone seeking an authentically detailed a reproduction, there are many artisans who handcraft Windsor chairs employing 18th-century techniques, for example, at Barton-Sharpe Ltd. in New York City, a specialist in 18th-century reproductions (where prices range from $500 to $650 for side chairs, $585 to $725 for armchairs and $1,400 to $6,000 (for settees), director Marcos Delgado has seen a steady growth In the demand for custom-made Windsors. One reason he cites is that full sets of antique chairs anywhere from four to 14, are very rare. He added what may be the final word on the Windsor chair’s durability: “The style has lasted because the chairs have lasted.” Pull up a Windsor for the best seat in the house.
Barton-Sharpe Ltd., 200 Lexinglon Ave. New York, NY 10016. (646) 955-1500.
Bernard Levy & S. Dean Levy, Inc., 24 E. 84th St., NY, NY 10028 (212) 628-7088.
David A. Schorsch Inc., 244 Main St. S., Woodbury, CT 06798. (203) 265-5151.
George Nakashima Woodworker 1847 Aquetong Rd., New Hope, PA 18938. (215) 862-2272
Leigh Keno American Antiques, 127 E. 69th St., New York, NY 10021, (212) 734-2381
Moderne Gallery (Nakashima specialist)., 111 N. 3rd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106 (215) 923-8536.
Primitive Barn, 1040 Route 6A, West Barnstable, MA 02668 (508) 362-9262.
Wayne Pratt, 346 Main St. South, Woodbury, CT 06798. (203) 263-5676