- Place of origin:
Great Britain (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Beech frame, with upholstery of knotted woollen pile (turkey-work)
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
'Back stool' was the common name for chairs of this type in the 17th century. From about 1615-1670 they were by far the commonest type of relatively comfortable chair in what today we would call middle- and upper-class homes. They remained in use long after that. They were generally fitted with fixed covers of leather or wool, as here. The design of such covers, known as turkey-work, imitated imported carpets. Chairs like this mark an important stage in the development of upholstered seating in Britain. This cover has '1649' worked into the design and is a rare dated example. However, it was fitted to the frame, which is of about the same date, only in the 20th century.
Beech chair frame (backstool) with baluster-turned front legs and plain back uprights and stretchers, on which have been mounted wool turkeywork back and seat covers with flowers worked in red, blue, yellow and green supported on modern canvas, with braid on brass nails and fragmentary fringe. The back panel of the chair is bears the date 1649 and the letters GSC.
Condition and modifications
The feet removed (below the bottom stretchers). Traces of former upholstery fixings on the back uprights below the back panel
Place of Origin
Great Britain (made)
Materials and Techniques
Beech frame, with upholstery of knotted woollen pile (turkey-work)
Marks and inscriptions
S G C 1649
owner's mark; Back cover
Height: 83.2 cm, Width: 46.4 cm, Depth: 38.8 cm
Object history note
On acquisition described as "Oak chair, with spiral front legs and rail; the back legs and the other rails are plain. The stuffed seat is covered with maroon leather, over which is a piece of canvas worked with a floral pattern in coloured wools, in the manner of a carpet. Round the edge is a fringe fastened down with brass nails. The back of the chair is similarly covered and bears the date 1649 and the letters GSC "
RF 63/2488 Bought for £4 from William Horne and Sons, of Leyburn (Yorkshire) 'dealers in antiques of every description'. In 1911 Horne requested a photograph of the 'Charles I.. old chair that I purchased in York many years ago' and noted his pleasure at seeing it (in the Museum) in a glass case. A photograph of the chair as acquired shows that the braid and fringe supplied were modern but it is not clear if it was applied over the fragments reattached to the chair in 1965
In 1965 it was agreed that the covers would be removed by the dealer S.W. Wolsey and remounted (glued to canvas) on a beech chair frame of more appropriate design supplied by him: "an extremely rare Turkey-work dated 1649 cover attached to a chair of rather later date. Wolsey will transfer this cover to a chair of the right period which he will supply. This is a particularly desirable alteration as the presence of a dated cover on a later piece is misleading."
S.W. Wolsey statement. 24 September 1963 "to supplying Frame of an English fruitwood chair (Back-stool) stuffing and covering using contemporary webbing and canvas etc. finishing with your two panels of dated 1649 Turkey-work fringing and nailing as necessary. The framework is of the 1st half of the 17th century £30. agreed to retain the original registered number for the chair. The frame taken from the chair will now become an unregistered object.
The 'original' oak frame was deaccessioned in 1967 (Board of Survey).
Covers conserved 1989 (see Owens)
Historical context note
This back-stool is of a type developed in the early seventeenth century, when upholstered chairs were becoming popular. The frames were usually of oak, but beech was sometimes used as it was cheaper. Such chairs had padded seats and a low padded back, and were covered with warm, hard-wearing woollen upholstery inspired by knotted wool carpets imported from Anatolia (Turkey). Turkey-work chairs were common in seventeenth-century inventories but few of the surviving examples are dated; the inclusion of a date and initials in the upper panel is unique. A set of four similar covers on oak frames, now at Holyroodhouse, were acquired in London in 1668. lt was accepted practice to acquire the Turkey-work covers and have the chairs made up for them; such covers were also easily exported to the American colonies. As early as 1601 the household inventory of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, lists ‘twelve Covers for Stooles of turkie work’ stored in the Low Wardrobe.
Turkey-work was ﬁrst made in Britain in the second half of the sixteenth century. The imported carpets which inspired the chair covers were more often used as table or trunk coverings, window and wall hangings. They were occasionally cut up and re-used as panels of upholstery on chairs. The dated panels on this chair were specially woven to shape on the loom, with a chequered selvedge. It is now thought that Turkey-work was the product of professional weavers working in one centre in England, possibly Norwich. At ﬁrst British designs were inspired by the abstract patterns of Turkish exports but they soon adapted the embroidery patterns of the Stuart period. This design, inspired by contemporary embroidery, consists of a naturalistic floral pattern in coloured wools. Turkey-work covers were still in demand in the last decade of the seventeenth Century. Turkey-work was woven with a strong linen or hemp warp and weft. The worsted, long-staple wool knots were added alternately with the weft, or after every two wefts. The knots were then cut to produce an even pile.
A set of four similar covers on oak frames, now at Holyroodhouse, were acquired in London in 1668.
Additional notes (taken from Gill Owens)
The dark ground favoured for turkey-work is often degraded or missing because of the iron mordant used in dyeing.
Beech was commonly used for chair frames outside London.
Unlike most chair covers Turkey-work covers were woven to a specific shape with a chequered selvedge outlining the shape rather than cut from a length of fabric.
See also Peter Thornton, Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. (New Haven, 1978), p185 ff.
Thornton discusses upholstered backstools in general and the terms 'farthingale chair' (not contemporary) and the French equivalent 'chaise à vertugadin' (found in contemporary inventories). He suggests that grand versions had exposed areas of the frame painted or gilded, while it was common to encase the short section of upright between the seat and back-rest with the same material as used for the covers (but possibly not for turkeywork). He suggests that leather and 'turkeywork' were favoured for dining chairs and that suites of such chairs might include a scaled up 'great chair' with arms. He suggests, from the evidence of contemporary paintings, that a domed profile for the seat was typical.
English 1649-1650, Turkeywork cover dated 1649
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Wilk, Christopher, ed. . Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. 230p., ill. ISBN 085667463X.
Gill Owens, "Now You See It, Now You Don't: The Conservation of a Turkey Work Chair", in the V&A Conservation Journal, July 1994, No.12
H. Clifford Smith, Catalogue of English Furniture & Woodwork
(London 1930), cat. 547, Plate 16.
Fred Roe, A History of Oak Furniture. (London, 1920), plate LIX
J.H. Pollen, English objects (Ancient and Modern, vol 1.) 1908, fig. 80, p.96
Labels and date
BACKSTOOL COVERED WITH TURKEYWORK, DATED 1649 The material is English and is likely to have been made in Norwich. It was woven in panels with borders (one can be seen at the bottom of the back-rest) ready for mounting on chairs of this class. This panel has however been remountcd on the present chair-frame which is of about the same date. Conclusions ought not to be drawn from the present makeup. In fact the chair was probably trimmed with a worsted fringe. Turkey-work was produced with a hand-knotted pile of wool on a ground-weave of linen. It was at first made in imitation of Turkish rugs (hence its name) but gradually European patterns were adopted, as in the present case. The lower ends of the legs have been shortened: the stretchers would have been about four inches above floor level. 
Beech frame; the back lengthened to fit the turkeywork panel; the legs shortened. Turkeywork covering: 81 woollen knots to the square inch.
ENGLISH; turkeywork dated 1649, chair frame about the same date.
Unlike the pieces of turkeywork carpet used on the armchair, these panels were specifically made for chairs of this type, though not for this particular chair. Initials on the back panel, presumably those of the weaver, raise speculation of household manufacture - like the 'Turkey carpettes of my own makinge' in the Countess of Bedford's inventory of 1602 - rather than commercial manufacture. [pre July 2001]
Covers made 1649, the wooden chair frame, originally unassociated with the covers is mid-17th century
Floral patterns; Initials (abbreviations)
Furniture and Woodwork Collection