Light but sturdy, stylish and comfortable, the Windsor has been the epitome of a good country chair for three centuries. The timeless appeal of Windsor chairs allows them to harmonize with all but the most modern interiors. Nobody knows where the Windsor chair got its name. Windsor was never a centre of production and attempts to link the name to royal patronage are probably fanciful.
The most likely theory is that chairs made in Buckinghamshire – the town of High Wycombe was the main centre of manufacture in Britain – were taken overland to Windsor, then shipped down the Thames to London. Windsor chairs evolved out of the turned stool, virtually the only piece of country seat furniture made in the Middle Ages. By the beginning of the 18th century, the basic Windsor shape had emerged; turned, slightly splayed legs joined by stretchers were fitted into the underside of a saddle-shaped seat, and a tall back, sometimes with curving arm supports, was fitted into the top of the seat. The chairs were produced wherever suitable wood could be found, though the West Country and the Midlands were the main areas outside Buckinghamshire.
Several different craftsmen were involved. The legs, stretchers and other turned pieces were fashioned from green wood by bodgers, who lived and worked in the beech woods. Pieces of beech were sawn and split into shape, then finished on a pole lathe.
Beginning as a humble country piece, a more comfortable cousin of the Windsor chair, the smoker’s bow evolved a variety of styles in the 19th century. The smoker’s bow is a simpler, stockier version of the Windsor chair which first appeared in the 1820s. It lacked the high back seen on most Windsor chairs and had a sturdier, heavier appearance. Its main feature was the hoop or bow a single piece of square-sectioned wood that was steamed and curved to make the back rail and the arms. A short flat cresting rail was usually fitted to the top of the bow to give extra support for the sitter’s back.
Victorian smokers’ bows had comfortably wide seats supported on four slightly splayed legs. The legs were usually turned, as were the stretchers which sometimes strengthened them. The bows were supported by spindles, usually eight, dowelled into the seat of the chair. In its original form, the smoker’s bow was never seen in smart or elegant surroundings, but it was the last word in comfort in pubs and inns, servants’ quarters, farmhouses and cottage kitchens. The sweeping armrests were just the right height for a pipeman’s elbow, hence its name.
Most smokers’ bows were made in mixed woods; elm for the seat, birch, beech, ash or fruitwood for the legs and spindles, and yew for the bow and cresting rail.
Settles are commonly movable but occasionally fixed. The settle shares with the chest and the chair the distinction of great antiquity. Its high back was a protection from the draughts of medieval buildings, protection which was sometimes increased by the addition of winged ends or a wooden canopy. It was most frequently placed near the fire in the common sitting-room.
The 18th-century ladderback chair was one of the most popular chairs of its time. It was easy to construct, simple in design and affordable to make. A ladderback chair, also known as a slat-back chair, is named for the horizontal slats across the back of the chair, resembling the rungs of a ladder.
The slats, usually two to six in number, are connected to the straight back posts with a mortise and tenon joint. The posts of the chair are perpendicular to each other and were usually turned, or rounded, on a lathe. The classic version features a high back and a woven rush seat.