Q: We believe this heirloom chair has been in our family for about 100 years. It is made from a hard dark wood and has a chiseled lion’s face on the back. Anything you can tell me about this chair would be greatly appreciated.
M. S., Miami
A: We have covered this ground before, but we still get lots of questions about this kind of chair so we will visit this subject once again.
This sort of chair with the carved face on the back must have been rather popular in its day because they turn up with remarkable frequency and in a wide variety of styles. Sometimes the face is very elaborately represented and covers the entire back of the chair with tendrils and curlicues with the actual face in the center. At other times, the face is a bit more straightforward and restrained.
In general, the more exuberant the decoration on the chair, the more valuable it is, and the one in today’s question is very nice but not extraordinary. But it is thoroughly charming. In the photograph, it appears to be made of mahogany, and has a nicely shaped seat to fit the buttocks. It is probably English in origin and was made during the period that is often named in honor of the English monarch who was on the throne at the time — King Edward VII.
He ruled from 1901 to 1910, and this type of chair is generally dated within this time frame. The design on the back is often associated with the devil, and some do look like this personage with a long tongue hanging out. Others say the face resembles a Viking with an enormous beard, but this is the first time we have had the face described as being a lion.
In reality, the face on this chair is supposed to be that of Aeolus, the Greek god who was thought to be the ruler of the winds. In many examples, the face has pursed lips and is surrounded by curling flourishes that are supposed to represent the wind. But as we said earlier, the variety of the styles of face representations on the back is extensive, and this kind of seating is most often referred to as an “Aeolus Chair” or less frequently a “Four Winds Chair.”
They were designed to be hall chairs, which were meant to grace an entry hall where guests — generally uninvited ones — would be seated while they were waiting to be received by the master or mistress of the house. Such chairs were not meant to be particularly comfortable and the face might have been there to suggest the unwelcome gusts of wind that could rush into the house when the front door was opened.
These usually came in pairs, but on today’s market it is very seldom that a true pair is found. Still, collectors seem to like them, maybe because they can be a bit grotesque and bizarre, and maybe because they are something of a conversation piece.
These are usually armchairs but armless examples were made, especially in the Black Forest, which is associated with Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Before the decline in antiques prices in recent years, a really good Aeolus Chair could retail for as much as $1,500 or even a bit more.
But those good old days are behind us and prices have declined on many objects that collectors once held dear. This chair is certainly attractive and interesting to the eye and should be valued for insurance replacement purposes between $350 and $500.
Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.