The 'It' chair

January 2009 | Fashion and the public, both fickle, love the new, so it is curious that a chair designed some 250 years ago has suddenly become the “it” accessory in many trendsetting houses. Furnishings do nothave publicists or agents, but they do have shelter magazines. If you read any of them, chances are you have seen the so-called Frances Elkins or loop chair many times in the last few years.1 Venerable decorators such as Albert Hadley and Richard Keith Langham have featured it, and so have younger stars such as Celerie Kemble (see Fig. 1) and Miles Redd.

James Shearron, of the architecture firm Bories and Shearron, has become the chair’s unofficial biographer, eager to trace it back to its birth in the last third of the eighteenth centuryand in so doing dispel the myth that it originated with the 1930s decorator Frances Elkins. Shearron says he has been obsessed with the chair ever since he photocopied a page showing it in Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards’s Dictionary of English Furniture, from the Middle Ages to the Late Georgian Period in the Lake Forest Library in Illinois sometime in the 1970s.

The book followed Macquoid’s pioneering four-volume A History of English Furniture, which appeared from 1904 to 1908. In order to include so many images in his History, Macquoid had cultivated an extensive network of fellow collectors, among them “Frank Green, Esq.,” who was identified as the owner ofthe “Painted Beechwood Chairs” shown in the fourth volume (see Fig. 4). Macquoid dated them to “about 1768, for the dipped seat was introduced about that time” and judged them “more ingenious than beautiful.”2 This somewhat unflattering description is the first reference in print to the chairs under discussion here.

Green (c. 1861–1954), a wealthy industrialist, was an interesting figure who between 1897 and 1930 restored the Treasurer’s House in York, England, furnishing its rooms in a variety of historical styles before donating it to the National Trust.3 It would be fascinating to find out how the chairs came into his possession, but he did not have them for long. Sometime before 1924 they ended up in the collection of Edward Burgess Hudson, the founder of Country Life, where Macquoid was a columnist. Two can be seen in a photograph from the Country Life archives of Hudson’s drawing room at 15 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, taken in the early 1920s (Fig. 2).

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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