I've just uploaded a revised version of the section on "Philip Clissett's Workshop and Working Methods". It includes some new discoveries, and a few corrections. As usual, if anyone spots any errors or inconsistencies, or if anything doesn't make sense (particularly to anyone with practical experience of chairmaking), please let us know.
I'm told that Tinsmiths of Ledbury, Herefordshire is staging an exhibition during July 2017 of handmade chairs. Tinsmiths hold annual craft exhibitions, and the subject this year is to celebrate the legacy of Philip Clissett in his bicentennial year. Currently, the chairmakers taking part will be Mike Abbott, Sebastian Cox, Gudrun Leitz, Koji Katsuragi, Neil Taylor and Lawrence Neal. Lawrence, of course, still makes a version of the famous Clissett ladderback chair.
The exhibition will run from 30th June until 30th July. I don't know more about it, but you can get further information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or keep an eye on the Tinsmiths' Facebook page.
This photograph was given to me ages ago by Bill Cotton, to whom I'm eternally grateful for this record of the only known stool by this chairmaker. Yet another example of the country craftsman's willingness to produce whatever his customer's wanted.
It's possible that Clissett made many of these, but this is the only one that's turned up so far. How do we know it's by Clissett? Well, I have Bill's word for it, and the style is exactly right. The turnings on the top and feet of the legs are exactly those used by Clissett on his ladderback side chairs. I'd still like to handle the stool myself though, and I'm sure that there would be other clues not visible in the photograph. Unfortunately, we have no idea of the stool's whereabouts. If you know, or think you have a stool made by Clissett, then please contact us.
I've included the stool on the Special Chairs page of the website.
This year we celebrate Philip Clissett's birth two centuries ago in January 1817. He was born on the 8th, according to family sources and, as we can see from the Birtsmorton parish register entry shown here, baptised on the 26th, a Sunday.
Born shortly after the battle of Waterloo, in the Regency times of George III, he saw no less than six monarchs on the throne, and lived to ride in a motor car and wonder at aeroplanes. He outlived three wives and all his children. His family involvement in chair-making dated to at least the mid-18th century, and he brought their simple methods into the 20th century with little or no modernisation. He had resisted the industrialisation of his craft in a way that was, perhaps, only possible in a quiet rural area like Herefordshire. This resistance to change, the simple fact of his longevity, and his late renaissance under the Arts & Crafts movement are a unique combination. He died in 1913, just before the start of World War I (1914).
Philip's long life, and his work as a chairmaker, are recorded on this website. Please take some time to look over the details and, if nothing else, examine the great range of chairs he made with his own hands and a few simple tools. Celebrate, with us, a simple craftsman with a unique legacy.
Here is a list of Clissett's chairs in public and private collections. In most cases, these are not on public display, though I have noted when they are. But, to counter that, they are generally shown on the organisation's website. If you want to see chairs that are not on public display, then this is usually possible if you make arrangements ahead of a visit. In some cases, there is an entrance fee – this will be obvious from the organisation's website.
Where possible, I've given a link to the organisation's website, followed by link(s) to any online information about the chair(s) they hold. In some cases, there is no online information, or only some of the chairs they hold have online details (e.g. the Geffrye Museum).
Not all of the information given on these websites is accurate, and it is always best to use this Philip Clissett website to make any statement about him or his work.
If you know of any other museums or collections holding examples of Clissett's work, please contact us.
Victoria & Albert Museum
Has a ladderback armchair and a very unusual ladderback child's high chair.
Art Workers Guild
The Meeting Hall contains by far the largest collection of Philip Clissett chairs in the world, all ladderback armchairs. That these are by Clissett is well known, so it is odd that the AWG's website now (at the time of writing) claims them to be by Ernest Gimson and his apprentices!
No. 7 Hammersmith Terrace (Emery Walker's House)
Has a single ladderback armchair on display in the dining room (see photo on linked web page).
Has a ladderback chair and two PC-stamped spindleback armchairs.
William Morris Gallery
Has a ladderback armchair.
England: Outside London
Worcestershire County Museum, Hartlebury
Has a ladderback armchair and a number of PC-stamped spindleback chairs.
The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Cheltenham
Has a ladderback armchair (usually on display as part of the permanent Arts & Crafts exhibition), and a PC-stamped spindleback chair. The ladderback originally belonged to the Arts & Crafts designer Ernest Barnsley.
Herefordshire Museums (Museum Resource and Learning Centre, Hereford)
Has a ladderback armchair and several interesting PC-stamped spindleback and other chairs including two flap-seated prayer chairs.
Butcher Row House Museum, Ledbury
Has a ladderback armchair and a ladderback side chair on permanent display.
New Walk Museum, Leicester
Has a good collection of ladderback armchairs and a side chair (scroll down the linked web page to see several Clissett-made chairs).
Rodmarton Manor, Gloucestershire
Has two ladderback armchairs on display.
Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow
Has a single ladderback side chair that's now properly attributed to Clissett/MacLaren, though it's still misattributed to Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the Hunterian web catalogue.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Has a single ladderback side chair. The online record for this chair used to have a photograph of the chair, but this had been removed at the time of writing. It can, however, be seen on Flickr. Note that some of the information about Clissett is incorrect, as is the species of timber the chair is made from.
Crab Tree Farm, Illinois
Has a ladderback armchair originally misattributed to Ernest Gimson but now properly attributed to Clissett and MacLaren (parts of the original misattribution are still showing on the website at the time of writing).
You might look at this elegant five-rung side chair, and declare that you'd seen it before on this website. At first sight, it seems identical to the side chair (No 4a) illustrated on the Ladderbacks page that is, essentially, a full-size armchair without the arms. But this chair is different. The dimensions of its seat is about 90% of the size of the seat on the armchair. This makes the back narrower, so the rungs of the back are scaled down accordingly and, because the overall height is the same, this chair appears taller and, arguably, even more graceful.
One of the two bills of sale that have survived from Clissett's workshop details two types of armchair. The "Ordinary size, Low back, Rush-seat Chairs, without Arms" is almost certainly the small three-rung side chair, No 6 on the Ladderbacks page. The others are "High back, Ash Rush-seat Chairs without Arms, second size". Until now, I had no idea what was meant by "second size". Now, it seems entirely possible that this new chair is the second size, while the full size side chair is likely to be the first size.
Another little mystery potentially solved.
I've long puzzled over how Philip Clissett bent the curved parts of his chairs. Modern woodworkers would tell me that he must have steamed or boiled the parts before bending them in some sort of jig (you can watch Mike Abbott do this in a Youtube video) . They would then have been retained in a similar jig while they dried out.
We have two quite detailed accounts of how Clissett made his chairs. Both are incomplete, and only one comes from a known source – an interview with Clissett's grandson, Will, who made chairs alongside his grandfather for nearly twenty years. Neither account mentions steaming or boiling. Chair legs were simply bent, apparently cold, in a jig.
It was green woodworking guru Mike Abbott who gave me a clue to what might have been going on. He asked me why there was such a difference between the back legs of Clissett's chairs and those produced by Edward Gardiner and his followers, Neville and Lawrence Neal – who make copies of Clissett's chairs. In contrast to the curve of Clissett's, the legs on the other chairs have a distinct kink. You can watch Lawrence bending chair legs in a short video of him at work. This is instructive, because the jig that Lawrence uses is more or less identical to Clissett's, and should produce the same results – but doesn't.
You will see that Lawrence boils the legs, then bends them over a fulcrum in the jig. My thought was that the hot, relatively soft wood bends at the fulcrum resulting in this kink with quite straight timber above and below. On the other hand, if Clissett bent chair legs cold, then I could imagine the stiffer timber resulting in a relatively smooth curve over the fulcrum. In one of the accounts of his methods, there is a graphic description of how the jig containing eight bent legs was placed in a cooling bread oven for twenty to thirty minutes, then left in a warm place to dry out. I believe the high temperature in the oven would result in the same softening of the timber that is caused by steaming or boiling.
There is no question that the oven trick will set bent green wood. You can try it with small stuff cut from the hedgerow, and it works convincingly. The big question is, can you bend a chair leg (1¼ inches thick) without heating it first?
Mike Abbott was doubtful. But he kindly, and very open-mindedly, gave me a chance to find out. He made a leg slightly thinner than he normally does, adding 10% to the usual diameter of a Clissett – then gave it to me to try to bend. To his surprise, and mine, it went very easily. He then tried it with one of his slightly thicker pieces – again, no problem.
There are several books out there that deal with bending wood, and some of them refer to cold bending. All seem to consider it of limited use, mainly because of the tendency for the wood to regain its original shape soon after release from pressure. But none seem to consider the use of heat after bending. So maybe Clissett was using a method that has since been lost.
Cold bending would be of no use for the dramatic curves of Windsor chairs but, for gentler bends there is clearly some potential – if a woodworker has access to a suitable source of dry heat. Clissett was, of course, using heat that would otherwise have gone to waste, so keeping his costs to a minimum. We still can't be certain that Clissett didn't steam or boil chair parts before bending, but we now know that he could have done it without – and if he didn't need to steam or boil, why would he have done so?
You can read Mike Abbott's account of this experiment, with photographs, on his blog.
Although Philip Clissett made spindleback chairs with wooden seats, the only ladderback chairs known to be made by him are rush-seated. Thanks to the sharp eye of Paul Shutler, we now know of the existence of at least one ladderback with a wooden seat.
This chair is extraordinary in more ways than one. It's built on Clissett's spindleback frame which differs from the usual ladderback in having no finials, vase-shaped front feet, and entirely different arms and under-arm turnings. In addition, it's stamped "PC" on the top of the front legs - the normal ladderbacks are are almost never stamped, and can't be stamped in this position because of their finials.
Furthermore, the slats on this ladderback are very different. Although graduated in terms of both height and width of the central part, this graduation is nowhere near as marked as normal, and the upper slats have less height than usual. And, whereas each slat would normally be shaped towards the top to create a blade-like edge, these are entirely unworked leaving a square edge along their entire length.
It's tempting to speculate that this chair is the forerunner of the famous ladderback, tweaked by James MacLaren, bought by many Arts & Crafts practitioners and followers, and still gracing the Meeting Hall of the Art Workers' Guild. There are similarities to a chair made by Philip's uncle which adds some credence to the speculation. But there is also some evidence that Philip made chairs that mix the styles seen in his spindlebacks and ladderbacks. So we're left, yet again, uncertain of exactly what we're looking at!
Many thanks to Paul for letting me know about this chair, and giving me an opportunity to have a good look at it (and for letting me use the photographs).
I've just been told of a new exhibition at Compton Verney, on The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now. Apparently, it features the Clissett ladderback armchair that belongs to Hereford Museum. The exhibition runs until 13th September, and further details can be found on the Compton Verney website.
The Hereford Museum chair is reputed to have been made by Clissett when he was over ninety years old. This story appears in several articles, but it is difficult to judge whether it is true. We know that he suffered from ill-health towards the end of his life - for example, when Edward Gardiner's apprentice went to Bosbury in 1910 (when Clissett was 93) to learn about chair-making, Clissett was ill and only his grandsons were available. In 1911, he was listed in the census as "retired". If he was still making chairs when over ninety, then that was a remarkable feat!
Time and again I see Philip Clissett's ladderback chairs advertised by dealers and auctioneers as by Edward Gardiner, usually making a connection to Ernest Gimson as designer. Occasionally, chairs are incorrectly identified the other way round (Gardiner's as Clissett's), but this seems relatively rare.
The chairs made by Clissett and Gardiner only look similar at first glance - there is quite a range of easy-to-spot differences. In an attempt to help, buyers as much as sellers, I've written a guide to distinguishing between the two. It's only in draft at the moment, but you can download it from the "Ladderback chairs" page, or try it out from here. Please let me know if there are any problems.
As an example, check out the chairs in the photograph. Even with a small blurry photograph like this one, it's easy to see that the side chair is not by Clissett. This is because the front feet are plain; Clissett's side chair had small ball feet. In addition, the back legs on both these chairs rake back sharply from the seat - typical of Gardiner and his followers, Neville and Lawrence Neal. Clissett's chairs exhibit a relatively smooth curve in the back legs. If you are able to get your hands on a ladderback chair like these, then there are more than ten features that will help you tell the difference.
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© T.A. Rowell 2017