It has already been stated at the outset of this book, that chairs, with their kindred pieces, settees, stools, forms or benches, occupy a place apart from other furniture, for the various reasons given in that introductory chapter. While this isolated character of the English chair has been thus insisted upon, the statement is true only of its later development, that is, when it becomes a chair in such a form that it cannot be styled by any other name. Actually, the progenitor of the chair is the ecclesiastical seat, such as the bishop or abbot's throne, the choir stall, the pew, or the bench. It is not exactly true to say that the chair was not known, as such, in the fifteenth century (as illustrated examples on subsequent pages will show), but it is so nearly the fact that the exceptions given may be stated as proving the rule.
It may be necessary, at the very beginning of this chapter, to define what the term "chair" really does, and does not, imply, and to find a descriptive formula which shall include any type which may arise, and yet exclude anything else. This is not so easy as would, at first, appear. We have to postulate, if possible, a material, a form and a function, yet none of the three admits of exact definition. Chairs, as we know, are usually made from wood, yet one made from iron or stone does not cease to be a chair on this account alone. We have cane or wicker chairs, for example, which one does not call by another name because they are constructed from another material than timber. If we describe a chair as a stool on four legs, with a back, and sometimes with arms, and its function to support a sitter, we have to exclude many pieces which are true chairs and yet are not supported on four legs. If the fifteenth-century box-type be admitted as a chair, - which it is, - we must include, in the same category, choir stalls, pews and thrones. Actually, the earlier forms of the chair do not conform to any formula which would describe, adequately, the types known to us at the present day. Even the definition as a seat for one person, with a back, with or without arms, made from wood, which can be moved from place to place, does not apply in all cases, as a chair may be fixed to the floor.
There are several reasons why the church stall or pew will repay examination and comparison, in this connection. The stall is, undoubtedly, the forerunner of the chair.
Stalls and pews were made in such numbers, that they served to establish types. They have, as a general rule, been preserved, and are available for such examination and comparison. They represent, in a general way, the fashion of their time, in its best sense, as the mediaeval carpenter gave his finest work to his Church. Stalls and pews are, therefore, not only chair prototypes; they show the highest class of work prevailing at their period and in the districts where they were made. Lastly, they possess an advantage in being, comparatively, immovable. They represent, therefore, the types of their locality in an unmistakable way; we may be certain, in nearly every case, that a Devonshire pew, for instance, has been made locally, has not been moved to the one village or county from another, and that it is a good example of the skill and taste of its time, and not a depraved example, representing a sporadic fashion or no fashion at all.
We can begin with the square box-end pew of the Devonshire type, such as in Horwood Church, Fig. 183. These pews date from the middle of the fifteenth century, and are late for their style, which shows the transition from the Curvilineal Gothic to the Perpendicular. That these were the private pews of local families is indicated by the heraldic shields and initials on the second, fourth and fifth pews in the illustration. The last two are shown in better detail, in Fig. 184. The dawn of the Renaissance can be seen in the two pew-ends from Coldridge Church, Fig. 185, dating from about 1500. The suggestion of the linen - fold pattern between the fret-tracery of the end on the right hand of the illustration, and its actual presence in the back of the other, is always a sure indication of either the very close of the fifteenth or the dawn of the sixteenth century.
Fig. 183. Horwood Church, N. Devon. - The square box-ended Devonshire type of bench or pew. Date about 1450.
The two pew-ends from Lapford Church, Fig. 186, carry us well into the sixteenth century, as the purely Renaissance foliated heads, in the Italian manner transmuted through the French of the Francis I period, indicate a date not earlier than 1520, and possibly some decade or two later.
While the square-ended pew is typical of Devonshire, there are rare exceptions, such as at Atherington, Fig. 187. A crocketted pew-end, however, is not only very unusual in Devonshire; it is exceptional in any part of England. Atherington is a church rich in woodwork, even for Devonshire, which, in the quality of its ecclesiastical furnishings, is not far behind the wealthy East Anglian counties. In several of the Devonshire churches, also, chancel screens can still be found, with their rood-lofts almost intact, as at Swimbridge and Atherington, and one is spared the melancholy sight of the fine carved and painted woodwork, of the most wonderful period of English joinery and colour decoration, left only as magnificent ruins after the purposed destruction by Puritan and other vandals.
Without a wealth of illustration, which would be out of place in a book of this kind, it would be impossible to show the distinctive types of pew and bench-ends which prevail in various well-defined localities of England. There are the Lincolnshire, the East Anglian, the Midland, the Northern, the Somerset, the Devonshire, and the South-Eastern, or Kentish types, all well-defined from the fifteenth almost to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The succeeding examples, therefore, will be briefly referred to, and only from the point of view of illustrating the genesis and growth of the English chair, which is the principal subject of this chapter.