‘Empty chairs at Empty tables?’ by Ann-Marie Peckham

chairs pic 1

Chairs are something that we have a lot of at the superstore, as you can see from the above photo (although there are actually much more than that!). You may not think they are a very exciting topic, but if you sit (preferably on a chair) and have a read of this blog hopefully I can change your mind (or at least show you some nice pictures).

Chairs have many different shapes, sizes and functions. While their form follows a fairly simple template of a seat, back, arms and legs, the particular design of a chair is what really makes them unique.

Some of the different chairs to be found in the Superstore

The specific design of a chair could simply be due to creative thought, or influenced by the materials that are available or the space in which it has to fit. It may also be dependent on the type of sitter it was designed for, or the location where it is intended to be used.

modern chair pic

While we don’t pay them much thought, chairs can be found almost everywhere (in some form or another) in modern day society, but it wasn’t always so…

Most of what we know about the early chair comes from monuments, paintings and carvings.

Tombstone of shoemaker Xanthippos c. 430-420 BC. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Although examples of wooden or covered chairs have been found from the early dynastic period (3100 B.C) of Ancient Egypt.

Chair of Hetepheres. Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hetepheres_chair.jpg

As you can see these chairs are far lower than today’s chairs measuring 25 cm high. Usually these chairs were intricately carved with animals or people (sometimes slaves or captives) as the ancient Egyptians believed that inanimate objects should represent nature, thereby avoiding chaos within the world.

Replica of Princess Sitamun’s Chair (over 3000 years old). Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sitamun_chair_replica_1.jpg

While it is commonly accepted that chairs have existed since earliest antiquity, they weren’t for everyone. Initially, the use of chairs was almost exclusively confined to church leaders, royalty or chief ministers of state.

William Juxon’s Chair: Made for the Coronation of King Charles II which William Juxon, Archbishipp of Canterbury attended in 1661. It is the earliest surviving example of upholstered furniture. Image courtesy of the William Juxon’s Chair: Made for the Coronation of King Charles II which William Juxon, Archbishipp of Canterbury attended in 1661. It is the earliest surviving example of upholstered furniture. Image courtesy of the V& A Museum

As British economist Evan Davis says “A chair’s function is not just to provide a place to sit..chairs are about status…or signalling something about oneself. That’s why the words like ‘chair’, ‘seat’ and ‘bench’ have found themselves used to describe high status professions, from academia, to parliament, to the law”. With this in mind it is therefore fitting that even the name ‘chair’ is derived from the Latin word cathedral, meaning cathedral which was the ‘seat’ of a bishop., and that typically a bishops seat is known as a ‘throne’; conveying the status and power that the role would have held.

L.1981.3 Sketch of part of Bishop’s Throne c.1760 with canopy which is on loan to NMAS from Norwich Cathedral

For everyone else cushions, sitting mats, stools, backless chests or benches were used

In a time before mass produced furniture became commonplace, many areas of Britain were known for the commodities they produced be it food, tools, clothing or furniture.  Norfolk was well known for three types of chair: the Norfolk Reed back, the Suffolk Ball Back and Mendlesham (which is probably the most well known). These chairs all had distinctive styles despite them all being mostly made from Elm wood.

Suffolk Ball Back and Mendlesham Chairs

Suffolk Ball Back and Mendlesham Chairs

While chairs are mostly used just for sitting on, they have also been used as a mode of transportation. Throughout the world there are many different varieties of chairs that could be carried such as the palanquin (France and India), the gama (Korea), and the tahtırevan (Turkey), taking their influence from the carry chairs of China and the litters of Ancient Rome.

In Britain, the carrying chair was known as the ‘sedan chair’ and was introduced to Britain by travelers who had seen similar vehicles abroad. It has been documented that Henry VIII used this method of transportation and in later in life had to be transported in a chair carried by four extremely strong men.  Generally chairs of this type were used by the upper classes to provide a clean, fast and private method of travel. However, as the craze took off there were soon public sedan’s available for hire in most major cities to convey people through narrow or congested streets.

This sedan chair can be found in the Bridewell Museum, Norwich.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, here at the superstore we have a LOT of chairs. For me its not just the look of the chair, or what they are made from which makes them interesting, but the story they tell, who sat on them and why. In many of our stores and sites at NMAS we have chairs from almost every aspect of life.

Throughout our 12 sites we have chairs that once sat in stately homes, farmhouses, cabins, workhouses, offices, schoolrooms and even parliaments!

three stages of chairs

Some of our chairs were used for dining, posture, children, smoking, transportation and to aid with going to the toilet.

chair montage 1

We have chairs to be used specifically by the fire, in the library, in dolls houses, chapels and gardens.They encompass many styles of work, types of materials and skills.

chairs 2Bearing all this in mind I like to think that while these chairs appear ‘empty’ they do provide us with a tantalizing glimpse of their past through their documentation, size, shape and material they are made from.

So next time you’re visiting one of our sites (or indeed any museum) remember and look at the chairs – for every chair tells a story!

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3 Responses to ‘Empty chairs at Empty tables?’ by Ann-Marie Peckham

  1. Cathy says:

    What a great blog! I will see our chairs in a new light! Nice les mis ref too!


  2. Lesley, Suffolk says:

    Both the Mendlesham chair and the Ball Back originate from Suffolk, not Norfolk.


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