Jersey chairs

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Jersey chairs

This article by Richard Stevens was first published in the
1996 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

It is surprising how little Jersey-made furniture before 1700 has been identified in comparison with other parts of northern Europe. The reasons for this may be various. Although the Islands have not suffered blitzkrieg, warfare, revolution or invasion on a significant scale, such as our neighbours have over many centuries, there may be other factors which have contributed to the dearth of early furniture in Jersey. In a community in which most people worked for every minute of the day to keep alive, indigence may be a reason why little furniture was made in the first place: the limited local supply of wood made the raw material valuable.

Chair 1
Chair 2
Chair 3
Chair 4
Chair 5
Chair 6
Chair 7
Chair 8
Chair 9
Chair 10
Chair 11
Chair 12
Chair 13
Chair 14
Chair 15
Chair 16
Chair 17
Chair 18
Chair 19


Fashion, among the more prosperous classes, might consign an old fashioned piece to the servant's room or even the stable, as we have often seen, where it might get woodworm, and perhaps be later destroyed. It would appear that the local population of worm is particularly virulent and successful.

In every generation, many sons and daughters had to leave the Channel Islands, as the family farm could support only one family. Through partage, the emigrants might take some valued possessions with them, which is why Jersey furniture and silver occasionally crop up in England and elsewhere. The more that local styles are studied and known about, the more it will be possible to identify them in the future.

The German Occupation (1940-1945) is known to have caused the loss of much local furniture. Almost from the outset food and fuel scarcities began, and it was not long before anything combustible could be viewed as a potential source of heat. In addition, it is known that furniture was shipped from Jersey to Germany, although the known description of this does not reveal which period or style of furniture the Germans were acquiring, nor the quantity.

The disposal of locally-made artefacts during this century, and perhaps earlier, through the salerooms, must have dispersed them frequently overseas where their unfamiliar detailing may have caused them to be described as country, or north country, or, the old catch-all, Irish.

These are some of the reasons which may explain the scarcity of local furniture but they do not entirely determine why we have not come across examples of domestic chairs which were made much earlier than 1700. There are buildings, and documents, which survive from much earlier times, and so the question remains unanswered: what has happened to the vast array of chattels with which our forebears lived before 1700; to their beds, tables and chairs? It is a puzzle that more of these things have not survived, as they do in neighbouring countries, when so much is known of the individual families themselves.

The chairs

Chair 1

The earliest local chair seen, an oak back-stool of Jacobean character, with a studded leather seat and back-rest, belongs to an old Jersey family who believe that they have always owned it. This example, Chair 1 , is of a type which was made in England from about 1620 to 1700, but the higher cross-rail in the front frame, as well as the lower seat height, would imply a date of 1680, or perhaps the very end of the 17th century in this case.

It is not known whether this chair originally had ball feet, which would be expected, and which would have made the seat a little higher than its present 15½ inches. It is a loss to our knowledge that more examples such as this first one have not come to light, for the development from this to the open-backed design is hard to explain.

Chair 2

Chair 2 has a taller back, the same well-turned front legs of 17th-century design and, on the top front rail, the ogee which in one form or another became a favoured detail for Jersey craftsmen for at least the next hundred years. On the underside of the yoke and the middle rail, and the middle front rail, a reverse ogee moulding has been used which will be seen in some of the subsequent examples. What is significant is that the middle rail with this moulding indicates that the back was never upholstered nor intended to be.

This design is not familiar in England or relevant neighbouring countries and it is not a particularly comfortable design. The only explanation which comes to mind for the open back and hard middle rail is that a local craftsman saw the frame of a chair like Chair 1, prior to its being padded, and decided to dispense with padding altogether in the next chair he made. Chair 2 has fine turnings but is much damaged.

Chair 3

Chair 3 is very similar, but has an additional ogee on the top of the yoke; it could have been made by the same man. A date of 1690-1700 might be right for both designs. This is one of a pair of chairs, which have ball feet added in the 19th century to replace what may have been there, which give a seat height of 17 inches. The high middle front rail is much worn, implying that the users preferred to hook their boots on it rather than place them on the cold floor. These chairs, and most of the subsequent wooden-seated chairs, have a detail peculiar to Jersey in that the seats are nailed up, at the back, to a shoe rather than down onto a rail. It is probable that cushions or squabs were considered desirable.

Chair 4

Chair 4, a panel-backed chair, has some similarities to Chair 13, but is from an earlier period. It is crudely made, quite damaged and heavily painted, all of which makes it hard to date. It has been placed in this chronological context because of its general feel and the ogee on the yoke, which also occurs on the underside of the bottom side-rail. It has also a debased scroll under the front of the arms, which was common in English and European furniture up to the late 17th century. The only example in this series which has ball feet is Chair 3, and they have been renewed.

In spite of the rot and rising damp so often present in the feet of regional furniture of this period, there is no evidence that ball feet existed in the rest of them and it is possible that ball feet were not known.

Chair 5

Chair 5 the Hamptonne chair, has traditional links with King Charles II when he was a fugitive in Jersey, although such claims are almost certainly garbled, as this chair seems to have been made a little later. It is true that the Hamptonnes were friends of the King who may have visited them.

This armed chair, perhaps more sumptuous than any others in this study, with its fine turnings, its simply curved and scrolled arm, its padded seat and small padded back panel, as well as its arcaded top, owes much to the 17th century, although this particular design is not familiar. The arcaded top and the finials at the top of the back legs are comparable with a chair in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, which must be from the second half of that century.

This example, however, shows the liberal use of the moulding-plane first seen in a simple form in Chair 2 and then used frequently in later chairs. The style of the finials, as well as the general condition and feel of the work, suggests that it was made after 1700, 20 or more years after this fabled king had died. For all this, we see a design which combines various different ideas in an original and successful way: it is a Jersey hybrid of considerable importance and leads the way to many other Jersey hybrid designs throughout the 18th century. It would also have been the proud possession of the man who commissioned it and may have been one of a set of similar chairs.

Chair 6

Chair 6 retains the square-topped back of Chair 2, and earlier designs, and introduces the curvaceous vertical splat of early 18th-century English chairs. The front legs are still of a 17th-century character and, although this combination of period styles is not unknown in England, Jersey craftsman seemed to be able to combine them with little self-consciousness. There is a strong bevel around the front of the back-rest which has not been seen in earlier or later designs. This chair, which has the shape of a 17th-century chair, may have been made for a Jersey farming family in about 1730.

Chair 7

Chair 7 had for the first time the soft yoke of a Queen Anne chair, but still the traditional turnings of an earlier chair. This melange of period styles no longer surprises us but, although it is obvious that the thing itself can have been made only at or after the later of the two periods, that does not make dating any easier. There were many variations of back-splats in use in the eighteenth century and this one must have been made after 1720 and, probably, in 1730. It is noticeable in this chair, and several which follow, that there are deep horizontal grooves scratched on the back-splat a considerable time ago. These are not any part of the design and have over many years become softened, polished and part of the general patina. It is not yet known what sharp and possibly metallic instrument inflicted these blemishes on chairs which were at the time comparatively new; my suggestion is that they were caused either by fashion or occupation. In other words, the buttons on the back of men's coats, or a farmer's belt turned around to the back (as is still known in some places) could have caused these scratches; or a dagger, or a tool of trade, or a militiaman's uniform might be to blame.

Chair 8

No.8, which has the immense tallness of earlier styles, shews in its yoke a version of the double convex curve which became evident in England in 1710-20. Its splat, which has horizontal scratches at two different levels, is comparable with No.ll, below. This chair is believed to have been made in about 1735. Some people might consider that its canted-out back leg places it later than the other Jacobean-Queen Anne hybrids; but the reality is that local craftsmen had a limited repertoire of details and construction to draw upon and combined them as they saw fit, as in any vernacular art at any time.

Chair 9

No.9 has a yoke developed further, in imitation of English styles of 1720-35, with a

soft curve and a shoulder. There are no scratches on the splat of this chair and so it was either in the possession of a family which did not have the occupations previously described or the splat has been renewed, which is less likely.

Chairs 10 and 11

Nos. 10 and 11, on loan to the National Trust for Jersey at Quetivel Mill, are the same chairs which surrounded the table in the old 'Jersey Kitchen' in a previous incarnation of the Museum. They are not in fact a set of four, but three of one kind and one of another, and are clearly the chairs referred to in the inventory of the Jersey kitchen'?' as '4 Jacobean chairs, oak'. Both of these designs have a yoke similar to No.9, above, and both have scratches in the splat. The seats of all of these chairs appear to have been renewed, as so often happens: being made of material little more than half an inch thick, they are vulnerable to being stood upon, used as a saw-bench or otherwise defaced or damaged. It can be observed that in Nos. 7, 8, 10 and 11 the internal curve in the back-rest is partly achieved by a spoke-shaving of the top of the back legs; this is quite correct for the period, even if simply done, and is also present in Nos. 12 and 14, below: but not in No. 20, which is probably of a different period and type, to be discussed later.

Chair 12

No.12, from Le Marinel, in its back is reminiscent of previous examples, such as No.7, but in all other respects is more forward-looking. The back legs are tapered; the front legs are not turned, but square, with a corner-moulding, and the back legs have a double cant backwards, as well as a strange bevel below seat level, which is possibly a memory(8) of older detailing. This chair is reputed to have been part of a set of ten. It was in an advance state of infestation, being of walnut, when a measured drawing was first made of it in 1989. Since then it has been reduced to a few broken components which have been carefully preserved. Much is known about Le Marinel but, so far, little written. One owner of the property who might have had a set of walnut chairs made to a new pattern in about 1730 was Philippe Lernpriere, (9) 1718-87, who had no children but, with his French wife, Julia de Varignon, executed much of the fine interior decoration at Le Marine!' Alternatively, the chairs could have been made for Francoise de Carteret, 1673-1764, wife of Michael Lernpriere of Dielarnent, who bequeathed Le Marinel to her grandson, Philippe. There are aspects of the design of this chair worth noting. It is the earliest example in walnut and the earliest drop-in seat in this series: in addition, it has no bottom rails. This always looks good but places great stress on the back seat joint, which is perhaps the reason why the chairs have not survived. There are at this house other chairs which were part of two distinct sets of fine mahogany chairs of Chippendale character. They have not been included in this study as they do not seem to be related directly in design to those covered and, also, because they seem to mark the point at which local high quality furniture was English in all but small details. Nor can they at this stage be established as locally made: but they may be connected with Thomas Lernpriere, 1756-1823, who married Elizabeth Beuzeville in 1783.

Chair 13

The next example, No.13, appears to be related to No.4, above, but is somewhat later although hard to date. Some of its details are in common with earlier hybrid designs and the shape of the yoke and the arms suggest a date after 1730, but a latest date cannot yet be guessed. It is a muddle of ideas which can be encountered in local furniture, but its importance is that it was the head of the table chair of an old farming family of Saint Mary.

Chair 14

No.14 is a fine armchair, probably in mahogany, but it has not been possible to see it, and the drawing has been made from a photograph. It is reputed to have been made in the Dart workshops at Saint Aubin; the Dart family building firm was in operation in 1818, (10) but the chair has all the appearance of having been made in about 1735. It is wide and generous, and is similar to No. 12 in the design of splat; one could imagine that an armchair similar to this would have been part of the set of ten at Le Marinel. So, either the tradition that it was made in those workshops is garbled or, if it is true, the chair was made to a fashion which prevailed ninety years previously, which would be unlikely for 1825.

Chair 15

No. 15, a pair of chairs in fruitwood, shew the emergence of the pierced slat together with a moulded straight front leg. The timber used is in parts very poor, and the condition of the chairs is weak, but the workmanship of the cut-out lyre shape, and the front legs, is good. As in No.9 above, the cost of the material was the constraint. The ears of the yoke have at some time been roughly shaved off to form a rounded corner. It is possible that they had become damaged by wood worm, or worn by scraping against a rough wall. The front seat-rail in each is marked with dents, possibly caused by breeches buttons or some other agent, as discused in No.7, above. The next four examples are closely related and are here considered together. They were expensively and finely made in the first half or the eighteenth century, using details which are entirely English; and yet it is remarkable that their like is not seen in England. They are all in mahogany.

Chair 16

No. 16 is a spacious armchair with a splat pierced at the top by four sweeping slots, and at the bottom by a lyre shape reminiscent of No. 15. It has cabriole front-legs decorated with carved shells(l1) and turned stretcher-rails, which were common in English chairs of this type from about 1710 to 1740. The arm is an elaborate scroll on plan, resting on a curved and shaped support. This chair is so far known to us only from a photographv" and has not been measured. It has simplified three-toed pad-feet the same as those on No.17 and similar to those on No.18.

Chairs 17 and 18

Nos. 17 and 18, which belonged to the Collas family, were believed by Mrs J. C. Stevens always to have belonged to that family and to have been part of a once larger set. They have on their undersides craftsmen's chopped-out numbers: No. 17, the armchair, has a form ofH,(I3) where the three side-chairs, No.18, have V, 111111 and III1I11, implying that there were once eight, or more, chairs. The enigma is that the armchair and the side-chairs are not identical in the base, although they are the same in their backs, which tempts one to the suspicion that they did not come originally from the same set. In addition, alterations and repairs are discernible in the side-chairs which suggest that at the very least some of them have been made out of bits of others. If the supposition that these four chairs did originally belong to the Collas family, and that they were made after 1730, is correct, then it is possible that they were made for George Callas, 1701-46, or for his son Philippe, 1740-1790.(14) There are of course many other ways in which possessions can come into a family; by purchase or, in this case, through the inheritance of the wives of subsequent generations. There is, however, one piece of evidence which supports the belief that they were owned originally by the Collas family at Saint Martin's House which is that there are two parts of an eighteenth-century

extending table inherited by different heirs of that family which, with an added leaf in between, would have made a much larger table. The eight legs of this table, although not the same as the front legs of Nos. 17 and 18, would have been similar in style. Neither, as has been stated, are Nos. 17 and 18 identical; for No.17 has the old ogee on the front seat rail, a slightly larger shell than No. 16, as well as a distinctly French-looking scroll carved on the inside of the cabriole-Ieg.

Chair 19

No.19 has been placed, rightly or wrongly, after its similar examples because of its square legs, with corner mouldings, its lower rails and its prettily cut-out seat-rails, reminiscent of No. 15. Again, this chair has not been measured and survives as a photo¬graph(151, but its similarities with Nos. 18, 17 and 16 are so striking that one is bound to think that they were all made in the same workshops over a period of little more than twenty years.

Chair 20

Chair 20 (not illustrated) has been placed at the end of this stylistic progression because it appears to have many details in common with them, although it may belong to a generation after the last example, at least. The many details of this design are similar to those which we have seen in several previous examples and yet the back is naively wrought in comparision with them. It has the square front leg, with a quadrant moulding, and a solid seat (albeit renewed) and is made of humble elm. This chair, with its side-rails almost at floor-level, is a throw-back to Chair 2 and several examples following, and may tell us how country craftsmen continued to reproduce what they saw around them; it could have been made at any time between 1780 and 1880.

It is probable that it was made in the middle of the 19th century and this gives us an indication of how much the country parishes were separated from the town and the rest of the world, particularly when one considers the vastly different chair designs which were prevalent in fashionable society at that time.

Up to this point, the intention of this study has been to chart a progression of Jersey chair designs made from about 1680 to 1780 and, by mixing chairs from different social classes together, to attempt to make sense of this progression. Some of the dating may have been wrong, as further study may reveal. However, it seemed that 1780 to 1800 was a convenient date at which to end this study for it was a time when, in furniture as in silver, English fashions flooded the English-speaking world. Of course Jersey craftsmen continued to make fine furniture and silver after this date, with local details, but it becomes increasingly difficult in the nineteenth century to determine whether a chair was made in Jersey or imported. It is hoped that other people will study this problem.

Chairs 21 to 25

There are five remaining examples of chairs (not illustrated) which probably fall after 1780 but which, as humble or kitchen chairs, have retained some characteristics of earlier designs.

Chair 21, a set of four fruitwood chairs form Les Potirons, Saint Mary, was used to furnish Breton labourers' rooms in the 1950s. It is not known whether they came from the Le Brocq or the Le Rossignol family, but it is clear that they had been demoted successively for they were once well-made. They have a square top, and the shoe which retains the three square spindles of the back has been moved up to form a middle rail. This formation, as seen also in Chairs 22 and 24, is not unknown in England but not in this form. The front legs have a corner moulding, and the solid seat is bevelled-off on plan with a quadrant moulding in the same manner as Chair 20, which is part of the reason that they should be given a similar date-span, even if it is inconclusive.

Chair 22, a kitchen chair from Le Marinel in ash, appears to be contemporaneous with Chair 21, although it is perhaps less sophisticated. No parts of it have had a moulding-plane and the seat is nailed upwards to the back seat-rail, as in many earlier examples, but not as in Chair 21. The back middle-rail has also moved up to half-way, and the yoke oversails the back legs; this is a detail which is structurally sensible and is also reminiscent of chairs such as Chair 15 and others. The name J P Vaudin has been stamped into the plain pine seat with a hot-metal stamp. The father of the present owner was John Philip Vaudin, but this stamp is more likely to have belonged to her grandfather, John Pinel Vaudin, who died in 1926. The chair, however, was made some time before that. There are some traces of red-ochre paint on Chairs 21 and 22.

Chair 23, from the Société's collection, made in chestnut and oak, has many characteristics of an 18th-century chair but must have been made towards the end of the 19th century. The interpretation of the design is fairly simple.

Chair 24, another from Le Marinel, is of some small interest. In the first place, only the upper part of it survives, as ash seems to be particularly vulnerable to worm in Jersey. Secondly, the upper part of the design, with its delicate spindles, seems reminiscent of a Victorian bedroom or bathroom chair; and, yet, the overall shape of the chair, with its central back-rail, higher even than half-way, shews us that even Victorian details could be combined with the shape of an early eighteenth-century chair in Jersey. It is clear also that this chair originally had three side rails as did so many of the earlier examples.

Chair 25, now at Hamptonne, is of an eminently satisfactory design. It embodies many of the best qualities of a farmer's or a kitchen chair. It is possible to see the origins of this design in previous examples. This chair, which came from Mr Amy, who had the village shop at St Martin in recent memory, is made of pine and is painted. It was probably made in about 1860, or later, and is a testament of the survival of indigenous styles at that time.

It is hoped that the study of these 25 chairs has demonstrated the individuality of their design. Not any of them are to be seen in the usual text-books of English regional furniture and England is certainly the source of almost all of the details. It is also hoped that further study and greater familiarity with these designs will result in their being known as Jersey designs.

It has been intimated several times how difficult dating can be. A period style, as has been seen, can be deceptive if it is perpetuated. Historical and genealogical connections are of great value, but are too seldom available, and in the end experience of handling many pieces, and examining their condition and methods of construction, are our only guides. Finally, to confound us all, there is a chair which outwardly appears to be a Queen Anne chair, perhaps more sophisticated than any we have discussed. It was made by a Mr du Feu in 1929. Is there a dividing line between a straight reproduction and the continuation of several different vernacular traditions? My view is that there is but it may be considered as tendentious.

Details of chairs listed

Ownership Date Seat height Overall height Width of seat front Timber
1 Private owner (L) 1680 15¾ 32½ 18¼ Oak
2 SJ, Hamptonne (L) 1690 14¼+ 39+ 18¼ Oak
3 Private owner (0) 1690 16½ 41½ 18 Oak
4 SJ, Hamptonne (L) after 1700 16+ 39+ 22¼ Oak or chestnut
5 SJ, Hamptonne (L) 1720 16½ 44 23½ Oak or chestnut
6 Private owner (S) 1730 17½ 39½ 16½ Oak
7 Private owner (S) 1730 16+ 39½+ 16½ Oak
8 Private owner (My) 1735 15+ 41¾ 18 Oak
9 SJ, Hamptonne (L) 1735 16½+ 39+ 18? Fruit
10 SJ, Quetivel (P) 1735 15¾+ 40+ 17 Oak
11 SJ, Quetivel (P) 1735 16¼+ 39¾+ 16 Oak
12 Le Marinel (0) 1735 17¼ 38½ 17¼ Walnut
13 Private owner, (My) after 1730 16½+ 44+ 22 Oak?
14 Private owner (Jersey) 1740 - - - Mahogany?
15 SJ, Hamptonne (L) ± 1750 16¾ 37 20 Fruit
16 SJ furniture file 1740 - - - Mahogany
17 Heirs of Collas family 1745 17½ 39 22½-24½ Mahogany
18 Heirs of Collas family 1745 17½ 38½ 19¾-21½ Mahogany
19 SJ furniture file 1750 - 40 23-24 Mahogany
20 Private owner (H) 1780-? 16½ 39 17½ Oak and Elm
21 ex Les Potirons, (My) 1780-1840 17¾ 33½ 16½ Fruit
22 Le Marinel (0) 1810-? 16½ 34 16½ Ash and Pine
23 SJ Museum store 1810-? 16½ 37 18¼ Chestnut and Oak
24 Le Marinel (0) 1860-? 15¾+ 38+ 17¼ Ash
25 SJ furniture file 1860-? 16+ 37½ 18 Pine

Note: The drawings have been prepared from measuring the original chairs, unless otherwise stated: but some detail is inevitably lost by the necessary reduction of these drawings. For reasons of security, it has not always been possible to identify the present location of the chairs. The convention of a capital letter to denote a parish has been continued in the list. + after a dimension indicates that it would have been greater before wear or rot to the bottom of the legs of chairs. Dimensions given in eights of an inch have been rounded up to the nearest quarter. Illustrations of Chairs 20-25 are missing and will be added when available

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