Until the middle of the
seventeenth century, a typical house would have had only two chairs,
one each for the master and mistress. Everyone else sat on stools or
benches (called "forms"). Seating was more a matter of social
status than of comfort. Consequently chairs were throne-like -- they
were large, elaborately carved and had arms. (The word "chair"
meant armchair: what we now know as side chairs did not exist.)
The desire for comfort slowly increased as
the 17th century progressed, and stools began to be fitted with backs,
to become backstools. The name preserved the status difference between
stools and chairs. In the last quarter of the century, dining became
more domestic and less public. Consequently, small gate-leg tables
seating four to eight replaced the long tables, now often called refectory
tables, of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
During the reign of William & Mary, sitting
on backstools around a gateleg table became the increasingly popular
method of dining. Consequently, backstools are relatively easy to
find, and are more affordable than the stools and forms that they
replaced. The best backstools were upholstered in leather or turkey
work, but the ones we deal with here are the work of the joiner.
Because they were made for the common man and
woman, these "joyned" backstools are characterized by a
sturdy simplicity. This does not mean, however, that they lacked good
proportions or attractive styling, far from it. Today, they serve
well as interesting, attractive, and useful side chairs.
Example 1, made in about 1640, is as early
an example as you would expect to find, and clearly shows its origin
as a joint stool to which a back has been added. Its solid paneled
back with carved lozenge is derived directly from the chairs of the
The next four examples are from the last quarter
of the century. and between them illustrate most of the features a
collector should look for.
The crest rail is the most striking feature.
On Example 2 it is strongly arched and has an interesting profile.
Its carving fleshes out the scrolls and gives detail to the overall
shape. In Example 3, the crest rail has an equally strong, but simpler,
profile and less developed carving. The turned finials and stiles,
however, show an extra level of craftsmanship that is lacking in the
other examples. The crest rail of 4 has been simplified further still,
and the yoke of 5 is the simplest crest rail of all. (It is worth
noting that in this period crest rails are slung between the
stiles: from the Queen Anne period onwards, they typically surmount
The splats show a similar gradation of quality.
Example 2 has a fielded (or raised) panel, on example 3 the splat
resembles a flat panel, on 4 there is no paneling but only simple
groove moldings on each vertical edge, and 5 has a plain board as
Each of the backstools would have had a thin
squab cushion, but only on the second is the seat dished to hold it.
All the others have plank seats.
The legs of all the stools are block and vase
turned, with 2, 4 and 5 having the most shapely turnings and 3 the
crudest. 2, 4 and 5 also have small button feet, and two side stretchers,
which makes them stronger, particularly when the diner leans back.
Example 3 has block feet and a single side stretcher: it may have
a good back, but it has the poorest undercarriage of the four.
All the stools have a turned front stretcher:
Example 2 has the finest turnings, but 3 is the boldest. 4 is attractively
worn, and 5 is perhaps the least interesting. Connoisseurs would argue
the merits of 2 versus 3, but others might prefer the characterful
wear of Example 4.
Each of these four stools has some of the most
desirable features, and none has all of them. Nonetheless, Example
2 has more than the others: it is the best. Example 3, however, is
not far below (although it has a poor undercarriage, it has a good
back, and backs count for more because they are more visible). Example
4 is simpler, but it has good proportions, some good features, and
a sturdy charm. Example 5 is an honest, no-frills example of the form,
exhibiting character without pretension.
For the collector of early English oak these
examples would form the basis of a good harlequin set of backstools
to set around an early gate-leg table.
(All color photographs from our inventory)