Last autumn my sister-in-law and her husband rented a large 18th century Scottish country house for the purpose of hosting a series of get-togethers with friends and family to mark a significant birthday. On arrival they discovered themselves in the midst of an over-furnishing crisis. You couldn’t move for chairs. The owner of the house, a collector of antiques, had put them everywhere. When counted, the total came to more than 70. In order to make the house useable for the expected guests, many of the chairs had to be carried up to the attic.
When I first heard this tale, my reaction was that 70 chairs seemed like a lot of chairs. But then I had second thoughts and determined to check out whether placing 70 chairs in a single dwelling is in actual fact a serious over-provision. I therefore conducted an inventory of the seating in my own considerably more modest home.
As a result, I can now announce, with a heady mixture of overweening pride and humiliating self-reproach, that my suburban semi can amply provide seating for 78.
I’d better start off by telling you something about our house, before moving on to display some of the seats in question and to show definitively that in a home with two occupants, it is in every respect essential to be in a position to seat ourselves plus 76 visitors simultaneously. This supposes, of course, that the severe Covid-19 lockdown requirements in force at the time of writing this piece will at some point be lifted, and that we may thereafter be permitted to have some visitors. At present we may have none.
The house in which Frances and I have lived for many years is located in an inner suburb to the north of Edinburgh city centre. It has seven main rooms, and although an estate agent would describe it as a four-bedroom house, we have arranged it slightly differently, with a living room, a small sitting room or snug, a dining room, a study and three bedrooms. Plus a kitchen, a utility room, a bathroom, a shower room and a downstairs WC. There’s also a large garden (considerably larger than we can manage), with a shed, a greenhouse and a rudimentary summer house.
So we live in the same kind of accommodation as thousands or millions of families all over the country. And when we bought it, we were the same kind of family, with two young daughters and a large golden retriever. At the time, the greatest market demand was for modern, double-glazed, well-insulated, easily-heated, cheap-to-run, labour-saving homes on housing estates in the outer suburbs. Not so many people were interested in buying old properties with all of the unforeseen but foreseeable problems and costs that accompany them. That’s why we could afford to go against the fashion and buy a stone-built slate-roofed semi-detached Victorian villa, built in 1857. To do so, we took out an enormous mortgage, the costs of which we were only just able to meet from our modest public-sector salaries.
It’s different now. The children having moved away into their own homes, and our beloved dog having died of old age, the two of us rattle around in our retirement in a place which is much too big and utterly unsuited for our increasing needs and diminishing capabilities. Heating and insurance and Council Tax costs are burdensome, and these days I’m too stiff and lacking in energy and motivation to keep on top of upkeep and maintenance as I used to. And then there are those 37 steep steps between the kitchen and our bedroom…
Over the years, our type of house has become more desirable than it used to be, and if we sold it we could no doubt afford to buy a nice apartment in a modern block in a decent part of town, all on one floor, with a lift, a balcony, fewer rooms, lower ceilings, better insulation, cheap heating, factored maintenance, shared repairs and insurance costs, and someone young and fit to do the gardening. How lovely! How sensible! And is that what we’re going to do?
Unlikely. Because we love our house, and we love our street and our suburb, and we quite like some of our neighbours, and we don’t like change and we don’t like upheaval. And then there’s all the stuff.
Which brings me back to the subject of chairs. Let’s take a brief tour.
- Front hall: a carved oak hall chair (1)
- Living room: three 3-seater sofas arranged in a U-shape. Two upholstered long stools, one low but sufficiently long to toast two posteriors in front of the fireplace, one two-person “conversation stool” used as a coffee-table substitute. One oak low stool (14)
- Sitting room/snug: three easy chairs. One “creepie” stool used as a low table (5)
- Kitchen: four high stools at worktop/breakfast bar. One reproduction splat-back chair. Two “creepie” stools in a cupboard (7)
- Dining room: set of eight dining chairs. Two easy chairs with matching footstools (12)
- Bathroom: one odd dining chair (1)
- Bedroom 1: one mahogany parlour chair. Two children’s chairs (3)
- Study: two swivel desk chairs. Two easy chairs. One odd dining chair. One dining chair from a set of four (the remaining three in Bedroom 3). One pokerwork stool used as a low table (7)
- Bedroom 2: one odd dining chair (1)
- Shower room: one odd dining chair (1)
- Bedroom 3: three dining chairs from a set of four (the fourth in the Study) (3)
- Attic: one odd dining chair. One reproduction Windsor chair (2)
- Garden: three 2-seater garden benches. One cast iron garden chair. Set of 6 tubular garden chairs (13)
- Shed: one stool (1)
- Greenhouse: one stool (1)
- Summer house: One 2-seater cane sofa with two matching chairs. One odd dining chair. One convertible stool/low table (6)
I don’t feel a need to justify most of the above. Chairs are useful, and not exclusively for the accommodation of bottoms. You need one in the front hall to sit on while putting on your outdoor shoes. You need single chairs in bedrooms as vehicles for discarded clothes at bedtime, and in bathrooms for bath time. If you operate a dining room, you need dining chairs, and if you eat informally at a high surface in your kitchen, you need counter stools. If you spend your evenings slumped in front of the television in your living room, then you need sofas, easy chairs and footstools. If you work at a computer and if you are lucky enough to have dedicated study space, you have a desk for which you require a desk chair. If you have a shed or greenhouse, you need a stool to sit upon while working or (more likely) staring absently into the middle distance. Likewise in the attic. If you have a garden and a patio, you need benches and outside dining furniture; normal people probably also need garden loungers, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
See? It mounts up, doesn’t it? But you might still think that seating for 78 is excessive. You’re probably correct. Here, I think, are some areas where we might have exercised a little more rigour and self-restraint in the sitting-down department:
- When we bought our set of eight dining chairs, we couldn’t bear the thought of getting rid of the set of four which were to be replaced, so we have kept them.
- It’s just possible that once or twice I might have submitted low bids at local auctions for odd but attractive chairs (or pairs of chairs) which seemed pathetically in need of a loving home. Might have been more than twice.
- Some of our rooms had unoccupied corners, and it seemed only reasonable to fill them up with a chair or two.
- The main problem: Frances and I crave (a) variety and (b) coffee. This fatal concatenation of two otherwise fairly harmless addictions compels us to maximise the number of different locations in house and garden where we can indulge in our daily mid-morning hot beverage. Having so many chairs in so many places enables us to select our coffee spot at a whim from among designated seating areas in the living room, sitting room, dining room, study and kitchen, plus (weather permitting) the summer house, the patio, three separate viewpoints in the back garden, and one in the front garden.
I guess, if we were under serious pressure, that we might be able to get rid of, say, a dozen or so of the 78 seats without suffering a radical deterioration in our quality of life. But we ain’t under pressure and we ain’t going to be throwing out chairs any time soon.
Below are images of some of the chairs under discussion, accompanied by their stories. Readers of glossy home-making magazines, viewers of daytime TV design shows, and consumers of the effusions of popular social media bloggers, vloggers, instagrammers and influencers, might collectively gush that much of what follows falls into the fashionable category of shabby chic. If that’s what you think, I venture to suggest that you’re wrong. Most of it isn’t chic. It’s merely shabby.
A sofa which was one of our earliest furniture purchases in the late 1970s, but made at least sixty years earlier. It has been well used but has many further decades of use ahead of it. When first bought (responding to an advertisement in the articles for sale column of the local newspaper) it was covered with a rather unsuitable rough tweed fabric. Which we then covered with a custom-made chintz loose cover. Which we then wore through, and a few years ago had the sofa reconditioned and re-upholstered in this apricot wool cloth from The Isle Mill, an Aberdeen-based weaving company (https://www.islemill.com/). The kilim cushion covers were £3.00 each in a charity shop. If you look carefully at the image of the sofa, you might just be able to see that the arm on the right side is slightly fatter than the arm on the left side. There’s a reason for this. When originally made, the sofa had a small lever which could be operated to collapse the arm into a horizontal position to form a day bed or chaise longue. The mechanism failed many years since and the arm is now screwed into the upright position, but many sofas from the late Victorian and Edwardian period displayed this feature.
An oak hall chair in the Gothic revival style from the late 19th century. This chair has stood in our entrance hall for many years, and tends to get covered by layers of external clothing, packages, magazines, unsorted mail, etc, which detritus is then compressed by the rear end of whoever might sit on it to put on their outdoor shoes. Before it came to us, this chair performed the identical service in Frances’s late Mother’s entrance hall, and doubtless in many other entrance halls in previous incarnations. I don’t like it. I never have liked it. Frances doesn’t have any especial fondness for it either, even though it is a family heirloom. It is a fairly mediocre example of this type of furniture, and we would really quite like to replace it with something rather more elegant. We have been saying this for years or perhaps decades but haven’t done anything about it. Neither are we likely to.
An easy chair with matching stool, one of a pair. I bought these stylish pieces a few years ago at an auction and paid rather more than I had budgeted – but at the same time a great deal less than the cost of new pieces of equivalent style and quality. You look at these and you instantly mark them down as Mid-Century Modern, teak, Danish. Correct in the first two particulars, but surprisingly, although designed by a Danish designer, they were made in Canada. The maker in the mid-1960s was R Huber & Co of Waterloo, Ontario, and the model name is Huber 6000, commonly known as the Scoop Chair. They are covered with the original tweed fabric, which needs to be replaced, but the costs of re-upholstery would be prohibitive, so in this case the term shabby chic might be more applicable than in others. They are also extremely comfortable, and perhaps the most snooze-inducing seats that we possess.
An oak child’s chair made in a simple standard country pattern in the late 19th century. It’s small and attractive and lives in the spare bedroom in which the grandchildren sleep (or used to sleep) when they come to stay (or were allowed to come to stay). It is a fairly generic item and unremarkable except in one very special respect. This chair was made by Frances’s great-grandfather, who was a crofter, fisherman and house-builder in the tiny village of Achgarve in Wester Ross on the remote North-West coast of Scotland (https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/57.88139,-5.55540,17). Since it is the only relic Frances has of him, this little chair is a very precious object.
A mahogany-framed parlour chair, with its original (distressed) green velvet covering. I’m including this piece to show you (or to confess) that there’s nothing new about my tendency to fill up my environment with inexplicable chairs. I bought it in 1971, when, as a 23-year-old final-year student at the University of St Andrews, I visited a jumble sale at the Boys’ Brigade Hall. Its price was 25 pence, and it came together with a matching chaise longue (since re-sold), which was 50 pence. Irresistible! Somehow (can’t remember how), I got them back and installed them in my bedroom in the flat which I shared with two other students. The chair, in all of its unfashionableness, uncomfortableness and down-at-heel-ness, has stayed with me through innumerable house moves and other vicissitudes over the subsequent half-century. My flatmates at the time put it down to mere eccentricity, but I daresay they had eccentricities of their own. My girlfriend at the time was very understanding and tolerant. Almost fifty years later, she still is – which is also inexplicable.
A mahogany-framed reproduction easy chair or library chair, which I bought at auction together with another which is very similar but not quite matching. Both are good quality early 20th century reproductions of a standard 18th century design, and were fairly newly re-covered in an inoffensive buff brocade fabric. This type of chair is often described by dealers and auctioneers in Scotland as a Raeburn Chair, because the portrait painter Sir Henry Raeburn had a very similar chair in his Edinburgh studio in which he was wont to place his sitters. That chair is now the property of the Royal Scottish Academy and is sometimes displayed in exhibitions alongside paintings in which it features. If you were to ask a dealer or auctioneer in England about a Raeburn Chair, there’s a high chance that he or she wouldn’t know what you are referring to. In England it would be described as a Gainsborough Chair after the similar piece of furniture in which the portraitist Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted many of his subjects.
A teak dining chair from a set of eight. These hugely comfortable, sturdy and practical chairs are in daily use in our dining room. They were made in the 1950s or ‘60s by the firm of Gordon Russell & Co of Broadway, Oxfordshire, and according to the person from whom we bought them, were bought new from Heal’s, the famous furniture store in Tottenham Court Road, London. The chairs are in the well-known X6409 pattern, designed in 1954 by W H “Curly” Russell, the firm’s designer (but no relation to Sir Gordon Russell, its owner). The original somewhat knobbly blue fabric wore through after a mere half-century of use, so we have recently had the set re-padded and re-upholstered in this grey wool cloth by Abraham Moon & Sons of Leeds (https://www.moons.co.uk/furnishings/domestic/distinction/sloane-square/).
A cane sofa which lives in the Summer House, together with two matching armchairs. This sofa and its companions were clapped-out when we bought them several years ago for £30 from an advertisement on Gumtree, and are even more decrepit now, held together with sticky tape and disguised as far as possible with colourful throws. The cover is a traditional flat-weave kilim from the town of Pirot in Serbia, bought at auction for a cheap price on account of the holes which are cunningly concealed at the back. In front of the sofa is one of the two low tables which feature in my last blog post at https://random-treasure.com/2021/01/17/utility-paradox/; on the wall at the back, a Persian silk prayer rug (worn and faded); on the floor, a 19th century Timuri Baluch carpet (which would be collectible if it weren’t threadbare and full of holes); on the table, a low stoneware candle-holder by David Cohen (1932-2018) who potted in North Berwick, East Lothian. This section sounds like one of those “Get The Look” features that you find at the end of articles about posh homes in glossy magazines; in this case, you can get the look for about fifty quid.
A late Georgian mahogany dining chair, one of a set of four. Early in our marriage, Frances and I had a few child-free years during which our joint salaries enabled us to purchase a run-down tenement flat built in 1823 in Scotland Street, Edinburgh New Town’s least desirable location. We could (just) afford to live there because property prices were blighted by subsidence caused by a disused railway tunnel. Living in shabby, chilly Georgian discomfort we managed to buy a small number of pieces to suit the faded elegance of our surroundings. These chairs are in solid mahogany highlighted with flame mahogany veneer, and are upholstered in yellow silk. They date from around 1820 and the unusual cross-stretchers indicate that they are probably Scottish. They were a terrible investment: today, sets of four brown dining chairs are anathema to the market, and their current value (in cash terms and without taking account of inflation) is less than half of what we paid for them 40 years ago. By contrast, Scotland Street is now the height of fashion, and the present market value of our flat would be some 30 times the price we paid in 1978.
Two creepie stools. We own three of these useful small pine stools, which have been made by local householders and joiners in this sturdy traditional pattern for hundreds of years, using any old timber planks which happened to be at hand. They are often described as milking stools, but I’m not certain that ownership of a cow is a sine qua non for ownership of a creepie stool. If you look them up on the internet, you’ll find that they are claimed as historic folkloric objects by Scotland, by Ireland, by Orkney and by other places too. Our examples were inherited from Frances’s parents, and they might well have originated in Orkney, where she and her family were located for some years in the 1950s.
An early Georgian mahogany dining chair. This single chair was bought for about £20 from an auction and is possibly my favourite of all the pieces of furniture in my house. It is made in a particularly dark, dense and heavy timber, and its construction is rather thick and chunky. There’s a relatively simply carved splat back and a slightly shaped apron at the front of the drop-in seat. The style shows clearly the influence of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, first published in 1754, which rapidly transformed furniture making all over Britain. But my chair is a simplified version of Chippendale’s designs, likely to have been made outside any of the main centres of furniture production. Thus it comes under the generic description of “country Chippendale”. The chair’s details seem to indicate a quite early date for this type of mahogany chair – perhaps around 1760. A splendid, noble, neo-classical object from the height of the Age of Enlightenment, used in our shower room as a surface for cast-off clothing, or as a seat for those increasingly frequent occasions when standing up to brush one’s teeth seems like too much of an effort.
A reproduction garden bench, bought a few years ago at a garden centre on the road between Perth and Dundee. It appears to be made from steel covered with some sort of antiqued stove enamel matt finish, and is one of any number of garden benches made to look like Victorian originals. It looks quite good in our garden in front of a hydrangea, a rhododendron and a camellia, facing east towards the silver birch tree. In warm weather it’s a nice spot for sitting and feeling guilty about how privileged our lives are. The bench was an end-of-range display model sold to us at a reduced price; so it didn’t come with its original packaging and I regret I can’t tell you the make or model.
So there you have them. A mere dozen or so seats out of the 78. I could go on and on. And on. Every seat with its own story, about itself, its history, its maker, its style, its provenance and about my relationship with it. Perhaps it is the stories more than anything else which keep me clinging on to these particular objects, as also to so many hundreds and thousands of other items in my collections. I could very easily live just as comfortably if everything needful to my existence had been bought at one time from one shop – but could I live as happily? I think probably not.
While writing this piece, I have realised that my inventory of 78 seats was not in fact quite accurate. There are eight more: a fitted window seat in the top bedoom which can take two ample posteriors; two step stools, one in a kitchen cupboard, one in the shed; a stool made from fragments of a 15th century carved English oak rood screen (for details, see https://random-treasure.com/2017/09/24/gothic-fantasy/); and, last and by all means least, three toilets.
That makes a total of 86 seats. And now here’s a challenge to Random Treasure blog readers: how many seats do you have in your home?