As the nights draw in, little speaks of classic hearthside comfort better than an antique Windsor chair. No farmhouse kitchen would be complete without one – and an obligatory snoozing cat.
It’s an English design classic. Turned beech wood legs are pushed into sturdy elm seats, carved to fit the shape of the human body. Beech is a soft wood that can be easily turned on a lathe, while elm is a hard wood, with figuring similar to oak, which doesn’t split if you drill holes near the edge of the seat. The arms and back of the chair (the uprights) are made from either ash or yew. Both of these woods can be bent, curved and manipulated under steam pressure. (See our feature on bentwood furniture in the November issue of Homes & Antiques, out 15th October)
Why Windsor? As with so many other antiques there’s a romantic – if fantastical – tale. The story goes that King George III was out hunting in Windsor Great Park and sheltered from a storm in a humble cottage. He was so taken with the simple, comfortable chair he was offered to sit on that he ordered the court cabinetmaker to copy the design for Windsor Castle.
The more accurate account is that the Windsor chair was made across the country. It’s thought that the ancient town of Windsor, with its proximity to London and situation on the River Thames became an important centre for their sale – in similar fashion to the old market town of Stilton giving its name to the famous cheese.
Certainly Buckinghamshire was a significant county in the manufacture of Windsor chairs. During the warm summer months, ‘bodgers’ camped in the woods of the Chiltern Hills and turned legs and spindles directly from the green wood of the noble beech tree. The finished article could then be taken down to High Wycombe and sold to the numerous furniture makers. Samuel Rockall, one of the last Chiltern chair bodgers, died in 1962.
The earliest mention of a ‘Windsor’ dates to the 1720s, and it is thought that they were originally used as outdoors or garden chairs. Painted green, they were also known as ‘Forest Chairs’. Windsor chairs with their original green paint can still be seen under the portico at West Wycombe Park, the former seat of Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the notorious 1700s Hellfire club, quite possibly still to be found in the same place they were left over 250 years ago.
At auction, decent mid-19th-century Windsors can be bought relatively cheaply for a few hundred pounds. The later 1920s ‘wheel-back’ versions (those with a cart wheel design as beloved of tea rooms and country pubs) can be had for virtually nothing. If you hanker after an 18th century example, things start to get much more expensive. I was lucky enough to inherit mine from my grandfather (and it may have been his father’s before him). Like the rarer ‘comb-backs’, which were the earliest to be made and which often have cabriole legs in the French style, I suspect if it were sold an estimate might be put at £3,000-£5,000. That said, a similar comb-back Windsor sold at Martel Maides Auctions in 2012 for £6,200.