This “short-arm” style of chair has been extensively explored in a article by John Boram. With close links to French chairs, this type is found in several English regional styles, including Macclesfield, Sussex and Worcestershire. Indeed, Cotton illustrated a Worcestershire example, by Kerry of Evesham, and suggested it could be the inspiration for the design of the Clissett-MacLaren ladderback, something which is now very much in doubt. In his article, John Boram shows a spindleback example that he attributes to Philip Clissett, though the chair is not stamped “PC” and there are a number of elements that suggest to me that it is not by Clissett. What is clear from John’s article is that this short-arm style can be confidently linked to Worcestershire, and that the appearance of one of these in Davis’s painting does support the idea that they were, for a time, typical of the region.
Our chair is a nice example in cherrywood, and of very light construction, as these typically are. It is pegged at the usual places for a West Midlands chair. In addition, there are a number of pegs at the ends of the stretchers – these may be later additions attempting to stabilise loose joints. The seat is large and low, about 15 inches in height. Maximum height of the chair is about 40 inches. The seat edge protectors may not be original. The arms have a unusual dipped form. Aside from these features, there are a few other points of particular interest.
The arm supports, which pierce the side seat rails, are morticed into the otherwise unmodified upper side stretchers, and held in place with pegs. Often, on this type of chair, the stretcher is enlarged at the point where the arm support enters but, in this case, the stretcher is plain. This does make a link with John Boram’s attributed Clissett short-arm chair, which is built in the same way.
The arm supports are of interest because, like the other West Midlands chair recently discussed, they feature the taper and ball (half-ball) style that is an important aspect of the famous Clissett ladderback. Taken with other evidence, we are beginning to see that this was a feature that Clissett would have at least been aware of, and may well have used long before James MacLaren came along to influence the form of the ladderback.
The slats of the ladder back are very reminiscent of the Clissett ladderback, and similar to those seen on the Kerry chair referred to above. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few West Midlands short-arm chairs with this type of ladder back. Again, they show similarities to French chairs. What particularly interests me are the differences between these chairs and Clissett’s. Clissett’s chairs in the well-known Maclaren or Art Workers Guild style always have the slats shaped from the front, so that you can usually see the curved face running off to the top of each slat. The back of each slat is entirely flat. In contrast, in the chair we are discussing here, the shaping is at the front for the centre part of the slat, and at the back for the side parts.
This shaping at the back of the slat, rather than the front, seems to be common to all the West Midlands short-arm chairs I’ve seen with this style of ladder back. It is also the case in the only two full-arm chairs I know of with this type of ladder back, one of which is uncannily similar to a Clissett ladderback (but clearly isn’t one of his).
But what is really interesting (to me, at least), is that I know of two chairs made by Clissett where the slats are shaped from the back rather than the front. Both are atypical in other ways…
The first is stamped with Clissett’s initials, and is the only known ladderback with a timber seat. It is identical to Clissett’s stamped spindleback chairs in all respects aside from the back.
The second chair looks, at first sight, like a standard Clissett ladderback. but is slightly smaller (see below). We know it’s made by Clissett because it’s a handed-down family piece – and it has the usual workshop scribe marks. But the slats are quite different to the standard ladderback – the centre part is much wider than usual, and the sides are shaped from behind.
My feeling is that these two Clissett-made chairs both pre-date James MacLaren’s visit to Philip’s workshop. The way the slats are made reflects the general way slats were finished in Worcestershire (remember, Clissett was born, and learned his trade, in Worcestershire). So MacLaren’s principal contribution may well have been to influence the way the slats were shaped, resulting in a more elegant back to the chair. All the other elements of this iconic chair seem to have been in place already.