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Treasures: Windsor chairs have a storied history

Windsor chairs are more valuable in multiples. Two is good, but more are better.
Windsor chairs are more valuable in multiples. Two is good, but more are better. TNS

Q: We believe we have a fan back Windsor chair. We inherited it from our grandparents. It has black paint that is flaking and worn, but the chair itself is sturdy and sound. Can you provide us with any information on this chair and its monetary value?

L. K.

A: There is a legend that King George III (of American Revolutionary War infamy) sought shelter from a rainstorm in a cottage located in the town of Windsor. Inside, the drenched king discovered “stick” chairs he found so comfortable that he ordered some to be made for his use.

The legend ends with the notion that because of where they were found, this type of chair with its turned rods or “sticks” fitted into plank seats was given that place name. Unfortunately, this rather romantic story is pure and simple bunk!

George III was born in 1738 and the term “Windsor chair” can be found in print as early as 1728, and it is certain this type of seating was made sometime before that. There are all kinds of theories where the name “Windsor chair” came from, but one idea is they were made in various parts of England and shipped to Windsor for distribution to the London markets.

What is certain is Windsor chairs have been handcrafted since the 16th century in parts of Wales and Ireland. Makers in England and America began constructing these chairs in the 18th century, and they are still being made, primarily in Britain and the United States.

Windsor chairs can be made from a variety of woods including ash, elm, some fruitwoods and sometimes yew and beech. These chairs were often painted (black, white, green, red or mustard) to hide that they were constructed from more than one type of wood.

True Windsor chairs should have no nails and no glue used in their manufacture. The spindles for back and legs were turned and fitted into a green wood seat that would shrink and hold the parts firmly in its grasp. Occasionally, a tenon joint will be found, but most Windsors were very simply constructed.

Collectors desire Windsors that have nicely turned spindles (generally the more spindles the better), old or original paint, seats that are nicely shaped to fit the buttocks and front legs that are boldly akimbo, like those of a sailor with defined muscles accustomed to balancing himself on the deck of a rolling ship. If the chair has arms, they need to have nicely carved “knuckles” where they terminate, and it really helps if the back chair rail terminates in elegant and well-made “ears.”

Unfortunately the example in today’s question (which is indeed sometimes called a “fan back Windsor”) is 20th century and rather unexceptional. The spindles on the back are thickly made and the seat and the legs lack pizzazz. The painted surface with all its problems should be kept as it is, and this single chair should be valued for insurance purposes in the neighborhood of $150 to $175.

Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email treasures@knology.net. 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.

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