(Extracted from John Fiske, When Oak Was New: English Furniture and Daily Life, 1530-1700, available from www.fiskeandfreeman.com)
In 1688 Randle Holme described turned stools and chairs:
“A Turned stoole…This is termed because it is made by the Turner, or wheele wright all of Turned wood, wrought with Knops, and rings all over the feete [legs], these and the chairs are generally made with three feete, but to distinguish them from the foure feete, you may terme them a three footed turned stoole or chaire.”
The words “turned” or “turneyed” and “thrown” or “throwen” were used interchangeably in the seventeenth century to refer to work made on a lathe (earthenware pots are also “thrown” but on a wheel.) The word turner came from Latin and is southern in origin: throwen, from Old German dhahan and Old English thrawan, is Teutonic and northern, and therefore, is technically more appropriate for these chairs whose origin lay probably in Scandinavia. We might more accurately call them “thrown” chairs — but that has unfortunate echoes of a domestic incident!
“Thrown” chairs are the earliest form of European chair. Some scholars claim that they originated in Byzantium, and then spread via the Vikings to Scandinavia, from where they came to Normandy and England. Their presence in Byzantium is disputed, but their Scandinavian pedigree is not. The earliest surviving examples, dating from before 1300, are all in Scandinavian churches. A point of interest is that “thrown” chairs are one of the very few forms of English furniture to have originated in the north – most others came from Greece or Rome, or from the Far East, China in particular.
Turners’ chairs may have been brought to England by the Normans, or more directly by the Vikings and other Scandinavian settlers. They came early. Illuminations in the Eadwine Psalter (1150) show arm chairs with knob turnings, and other records show that they were well established in the medieval and Tudor periods.
As Randle Holme noted, they were of two forms — triangular or “three-post”, and square or “four-post”. The three-post form appears to be the earlier of the two. It also stood more steadily on an uneven floor and was thus well suited to farmhouses.
During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, joiners steadily took over furniture making from turners and carpenters. The joined chair and stool gradually replaced the turned chair and stool, particularly in the grander houses.
“Turneyed” work was moved down the social scale, and turners had less social prestige than joiners. The combination of lower status and rough use led to a low survival rate – not a single turned stool has survived from before the middle of the eighteenth century, and turned chairs, at least in comparison to wainscot chairs, are now few and far between.
This was not always the case: in a widely quoted letter (August 1761), Horace Walpole, who wanted some to furnish his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, noted that, “Dicky Bateman has picked up a whole cloisterful of old chairs in Herefordshire – he bought them one by one, here and there, in farm-houses, for three-and-sixpence and a crown apiece. They are of wood, the Seats triangular, the backs loaded with turnery.”
The four-post chairs are always larger and more elaborate than the three-posters. They were clearly of a higher social status. Today these massive, ornately turned chairs can seem strikingly unfamiliar, even a bit primitive. This is probably because, although most surviving examples were made in the seventeenth century, their form had remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the turned chair was to the yeoman farmer, the artisan and the tradesman what the great, joined chair was to the landed gentry and nobility. It was the piece of furniture by which he could display his social status, and in which turners could show off their virtuosity: we might almost think that the turned chair enabled them to thumb their noses at the joiners – look what we can do that you can’t!
Postscript: Two Special Chairs
The Harvard President’s Chair
This chair was first used by Rev. Edward Holyoke, President of Harvard 1737-1769, and may have been obtained by him. The ball handgrips on the top of the front posts were reputedly turned by Holyoke himself. Copley’s portrait of Edward Holyoke shows him seated in this chair.
The Chipstone Three-Post Chair
This chair is the only known American three-post chair, but it is not, strictly speaking, a turner’s chair. Only the front posts are turned: the construction of the rest of the chair derives from house building techniques. Attributed to John Eldekin, an English immigrant carpenter, who lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut.