‘Tis the Season for “Summer House” Seating

June 29 2016, 4:08pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC This set of eight “summer house” chairs, in the manner of Robert Manwaring, is a very rare survival of eighteenth century “rustic” or “forest” furniture, that is, garden furniture constructed from actual tree branches, roots and twigs for use outdoors. Made of woods “susceptible to the ravages of woodworm, time, and the English climate,”1 very few examples survive today and therefore evidence of the production of these types of furnishings comes almost entirely from inventories and illustrations of the period. The use of rush seats on the present chairs is possibly unique and, according to Kate Hay of the furniture department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, indicates that the chairs would have been used in a garden building that provided protection from the elements, or were at least stored under cover between use. In any event, the seats are a costly and sophisticated addition to the bucolic impression. Carlton Hobbs LLC As the popularity of ornamental architecture spread among the upper class, who enjoyed playing at pastoral fantasies, there arose a desire for appropriate furnishings. Rustic chairs were made to furnish garden buildings such as summerhouses, gazebos, grottos, and hermitages. One of the earliest garden conceits to contain rustic furniture was Merlin’s Cave, designed by William Kent in 1735 for Queen Caroline in the Royal Garden at Richmond, which incorporated a pair of bookcases made up of unfinished branches (figure 1). Interest in the rustic style in England  developed alongside enthusiasm for the major exotic styles such as French or Modern (as the rococo was known in England), Gothic, and Chinoiserie; in its early incarnations rustic work “seems to have been considered Chinese,”2 although this often comprised but a few naturalistic twig formations among more traditional pagoda or lattice forms. Figure 1 It was not until he 1750s and 60s that furniture pattern books including or entirely devoted to true rustic designs were first published. The earliest models were printed in Edwards and Matthew Darly’s New Book of Chinese Designs (1754) in which four chairs and a table were “created out of the most outlandish contortions of tree roots”3 (figure 2). Figure 2 Robert Manwaring’s The Cabinet and Chair Maker’s Real Friend and Companion was subsequently published in 1765. According to the author, rustic chairs ‘”may be made with the Limbs of Yew or Apple Trees, as Nature produces them; but the stuff should be very dry, and well season’d: after the bark is peeled clean off, chuse [sic] for your pitches the nearest pieces you can match for the shape of the Back, Fore Feet and Elbows…”4 The present chairs relate most closely to Plate 28 of his Companion, which depict “rural chairs for summer houses” (figure 3). Figure 3 Chairs that were not fashioned out of natural branches were carved from solid wood to achieve the same effect. The Victoria & Albert museum collection contains an example of such a side chair of carved and painted beech wood, circa 1770-1800, that simulates a network of twigs for the backrest and knotted branches for the legs (figure 4). Figure 4 The last late-eighteenth century pattern book to illustrate rustic furniture, and indeed the only volume devoted exclusively to this style, was called Ideas for Rustic Furniture proper for Garden Seats, Summer Houses, Hermitages, Cottages, &c. on 25 Plates. Printed in London by I. and J. Taylor in the 1790s, Ideas for Rustic Furniture contained “designs for ‘twig’ furniture of every description: chairs, settees, tables, even mirror and picture frames, for the ideal garden building”5 (figure 5). Figure 5 The trend for rustic furniture continued into the nineteenth century. Rustic chairs can be seen in an interior of about 1830 of a “Swiss Cottage,” at one time situated in Regents’ Park, illustrated in Charlotte Gere’s Nineteenth Century Decoration (1989), Plate 238. Later in the century, rustic furniture was supplied by specialist makers and horticultural providers, such as T. Rutter, a builder of summer houses who operated a shop in London that sold rustic furnishings and gazebos.    Carlton Hobbs LLC