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Armchair

Armchair

  • Place of origin:

    London (Almost certainly. This is a piece of courtly quality. , made)

  • Date:

    1615-1640 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Beech, with decoration of gilded gesso and paint, the upholstery of silk velvet (back and arms), with the seat velvet renewed between 1928 and 1953. The seat is reinforced underneath with softwood battens and boards.

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the assistance of the Murray Bequest

  • Museum number:

    W.58-1953

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Chairs of this form were fashionable from about 1615 to about 1660. They provided comfort and indicated status in a wealthy household. The chair may have been made with a matching set of smaller chairs without arms. The red velvet on the back is original. The dark line across the back shows where a fringe was once attached. There are also traces of original gilded and painted decoration, so this was clearly an expensive and prestigious example. Royal bills show that the gilder Philip Bromefield (active 1626-1642) supplied gilded and painted furniture to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. Very few examples of painted furniture survive from the 1600s.

Physical description

Armchair of beechwood, decorated with gilding and painting over a gesso ground, with polychrome single flowers over a ground of gilded arabesques on red. The front legs and arm supports are turned as columns, except for the sections where the seat rails and stretchers are jointed to them; the back legs, back uprights and the foot-level stretchers on all four sides are of rectangular section, the back with a marked rake above the seat rail. The rectangular back and seat are upholstered in red velvet, the velvet of the seat a replacement. Originally the chair would have had turned finials at the top of the back uprights, gilded and decorated to match the rest of the frame.

The frame is painted on all visible surfaces with polychrome decoration of naturalistic English flowers (possibly anemones or roses) on a gilt-gesso ground. In several places (notably on the outer sides of the lower back uprights) the flowers are set against a background of dense gilded arabesques on a red ground, and it seems likely that this ground was originally present everywhere on the chair. The decoration is very much degraded, with much loss of surface, so reading the original scheme is not easy. The arabesque background to these areas was painted with gold powder in a varnish, over a ground that was painted with a transparent red glaze over the base gilding. The naturalistically painted flowers, which include anenomes and roses, are painted in translucent and solid colours (pinky red and a malachite-like green predominate), with black-line details.

The rectangular seat and back, and the down-curving arms are upholstered in red silk velvet, which survives from the original scheme, although much degraded. On the back the original 21" (54 cm) width of the velvet is visible in the vertical seams to either side. On both back and arms, the seams (sometimes re-sewn) show fragments of metal-thread trimming. The velvet on the arms has been mounted down onto new velvet. On the back, a shadow line running horizontally just above the arms, would originally have been covered by a deep fringe.Similar fringe, perhaps of different widths would also have hung from the bottom of the back, from the ege of the seat (which would have had a loose cushion, with similar trimming) and possibly from the top edge of the back. A fragment of this survives on the lining of the back, behind the PL upright and shows it to be silver thread.

The back is lined with plain linen canvas (possibly original), showing a crease between two lines of stitching running horizontally across the middle, with two lines of stitching. This may relate to the line of fringing that was originally mounted on the front face at this height. Red fabrics (silk and silk velvet) are visible under this on the PL side. The lower back rail is probably a later addition rather than a replacement but the top rail is replaced. The seat is now reinforced wtih two attached battens, inside the front and back rails of the seat. These support two softwood boards running front to back, with gaps between them. Neither the battens nor boards show on the photograph published in 1924 (see reference to Margaret Jourdain's book) but may well have been already in place. The edges of a coarse linen base cloth are visible in that photo and it may be the base cloth that currently sits above the softwood boards, supported on two lateral, plain-weave lengths of webbing. This idea is further supported by a black and white photograph taken from the back of the chair, presumably at the same time as the photo published by Margaret Jourdain and now in the collection of Fortt negatives held by the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department at the V&A. It appears to show the current canvas. Derek Balfour (conservation upholsterer) and Frances Collard (V&A curator noted in the 1990s that the double-thread weave of the canvas was similar to canvas on other chairs of the period which are known to retain their original upholstery. The nails that attach the battens could be earlier than 1924, although the crimson velvet (possibly cotton) dates from after that time.

The chair is of standard mortise-and-tenon construction. The arms show a down-curving profile and are notched on the underside about half way along, in a manner that is generally seen in oak armchairs of the 17th century. Because the upholstery has been repaired, it is difficult to understand how this appeared when the chair was new.

Place of Origin

London (Almost certainly. This is a piece of courtly quality. , made)

Date

1615-1640 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Beech, with decoration of gilded gesso and paint, the upholstery of silk velvet (back and arms), with the seat velvet renewed between 1928 and 1953. The seat is reinforced underneath with softwood battens and boards.

Dimensions

Height: 98 cm, Width: 70.5 cm at top, Depth: 67.5 cm

Object history note

Purchased from the wife of the dealer Mr John Hunt, 149 Old Church Street, London, SW3.

Notes from R.P. 53/3425

Listed on purchase form
As "chair, painted wood - Early 17th c. English -- £320"

2/11/53, letter from Ralph Edwards to John Hunt
requests a reduction in price for the chair which he describes as "an interesting wreck". 5/11/53 response fixes the price at £320.

11/11/53, minute of Ralph Edwards to the Directors
stating that the armchair is "a desirable acquisition at £320 - an exceedingly rare specimen of painted furniture of the early 17th century. Very few painted chairs of this kind are known".

21/11/53, account for the chair by Hunt
"An armchair, with columnar legs connected by plain stretchers, and scroll ended arms decorated with formalized flowers and leaves in brilliant colours of silver gilded gesso ground. English circa 1600, - 320.00."

In 1924 the furniture scholar, Margaret Jourdain, noted that a fragment of Turkey work had been found on the chair and she suggested that this was part of a later scheme of upholstery. It would certainly not have been grand enough as an original scheme, which would certainly have been in silk or silk velvet. No trace of Turkey-work can now be found. It was possibly on the seat, which we know was stripped of all but the base cloth in 1924.

Furniture of the late 16th and early 17th centuries was sometimes gilded and painted, to echo the use of very rich textiles in upholstery. This method of decoration, however, was extremely fragile and has often been lost, the woodwork of such chairs sometimes stripped to tidy up a scheme that suffered much loss. For this reason, this chair is much prized, although its painted surface is not in good condition.

Chairs with similar decoration are known at Knole Kent, dated to about 1635-40. They show gilded arabesques on a red ground and retain their original red silk upholstery. The painting, however, was considerably overpainted in the early 1950s. Nicholas |Humphrey recognized that a single armchair, with very similar gilded decoration on a blue ground (but with entirely renewed upholstery) is in Exeter cathedral and this probably gives the best indication of how the armchair woodwork was intended to look. In that case, the arms are not upholstered, but are decorated in a similar fashion to the rest of the frame. They show the same mid-way notch on the underside as on the V&A chair.

In 1994 curator James Yorke wrote a paper (see refs) on painted furniture made for Queen Henrietta Marie by Philip Bromefield between 1626 and 1642, with very similar sounding gilded decoration and flower painting. He also published entries from inventories for Oatlands, Surrey for Queen Anne of Denmark's furniture in 1616-18, which also listed similarly decorated furniture e.g. 'painted with white and gold and spotted with red flowers'. He did not suggest that Bromefield was the painter of the V&A chair, but his paper well illustrates the taste for such furnishing in courtly circles in the first half of the 17th century. He did, however, suggest that the decoration might have drawn on Adrian Collaert's Florilegium, published in Antwerp in about 1590, or a similar publication, for images for the flowers (see V&A E.524-1991 for a sample plate).

In 1998 the upholstery was examined by the curator Frances Collard and the conservation upholsterer Derek Balfour, who filed a report on their findings after a short inspection. A copy of this is in departmental files. A summary of the conclusions was that the arm upholstery appears to be original, though mounted on later velvet, with some conservation. It shows the use of metal-thread triming, fragments of which can be seen behind the PL upright on the back. The inside back appears to be original. Fragments under nails suggest that the trimming used on the arms was also used up the sides of the back. It was presumably carried along the top of the back although there is no evidence for this. This trimming may have been a narrower version of the fringe that has left a shadow mark across the centre of the back. There is no sign of an outside back, although tack holes suggest one might have been there. DB and FC considered that it might have been of leather for strength, as fragments of leather were found inside the stiles. There is no evidence of webbing to the back. The lower rail may have been an insertion rather than a replacement as neither the Juxon chair (V&A, W. 12-1928) nor the chairs at Knole, Kent, had rails in the lower back originally. They noted that the top rail was probably early 20th century. They noted tack holes all the way down the outer edge of the back to the seat cover. They considered that the stitching across the centre of the inside back, could relate to the fringing that was clearly once in this position on the front face of the back. They believed that the base cloth and webbing of the seat could be original. The double-warp linen is similar to that on the Dolphin chairs at Ham House, but finer, and similar to that on the chairs at Knole.

Descriptive line

Armchair of turned beechwood, decorated with polychrome painting of flowers on a gilded gesso ground with background of red and gold arabesques. The back and seat are upholstered in crimson velvet.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Yorke, James - 'Royal Painted furniture in King Charles I's England', in Painted Wood: History and Conservation. Proceedings of a symposium organized by the Wooden Artifacts Group of the the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artists Works and the Foundation of the AIC, held at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 11-14 November 1994. Getty Conservation Institute, 1998, pp. 120-127, illus. p. 120


Jourdain, Margaret, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance (1500-1650). An account of its development and characteristic forms. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1924, vol. II, fig. 337, p. 250 and p. 243.
Peter Thornton, 'Back-stools and Chaises à Demoiselles', The Connoisseur, vol. 185, no. 774 (February 1974), pp. 98-165, this chair illustrated as fig.9, p. 104.
Franz Windisch-Graetz, Möbel Europas 2. Renaissance und Manierismus. Vom 15. Jahrhunderts bis in die erst Hälfte des 17. Jahrhunderts. Munich, Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1983, fig. 238, p. 324.
London, Victoria and Albert Museum. English Chairs. With an introduction by Ralph Edwards, FSA. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 2nd ed, 1965, pl. 13
London, Victoria and Albert Museum. English Chairs. With an introduction by Ralph Edwards, FSA. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 3rd ed, 1971, pl. 111

Labels and date

ARMCHAIR
Wooden frame decorated with painted flowers on a gilt gesso ground. The upholstery is not original
ENGLISH; about 1620

This is a rare survival of an especially luxurious type of painted furniture, comparable to examples at Knole in kent. The original cover was probably of leather but the chair was later re-upholstered in red velvet. [1989]

Materials

Beech; Softwood; Velvet

Techniques

Joinery; Turning; Gilding; Painting; Upholstery

Subjects depicted

Flowers

Categories

Furniture

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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