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JOEL Joel's Blog

Things to Sit On in Randle Holme's The Academy of Armory, York, England, 1688


A Painter
A Painter

I've been working on a blog about chairs. As part of my research, I took a closer look at Randle Holmes's 1688 opus, "The Academy of Armory." The book is considered the best illustrated guide to life in 17th century England and it is chock full of all sorts of illustrations. Every section of the book has a page or two of wood engravings composed of a grid of 1" by 1 1/4" filled with pictures of flora, fauna, heraldic symbols, clothing, tools, etc., along with the topic at hand, people engaged in all sorts of activities, including sitting down. (There is nothing specific about chairmaking or chairmaking tools.)

In the seventeenth century people didn't have a lot of furniture. Even a simple stick stool, which requires very few tools, can take several hours to build. Anything more complex would take longer. So the book shows very few chairs. But it does include a few engravings of people sitting on chairs, stools, boxes and barrels. The average person just didn't have the money or time for fancy furniture. If a picture shows someone sitting on furniture, you can often get a sense of their economic status simply by looking at what they are sitting on.

There are basically three ways to build a chair or stool. It's a technical distinction based on the tools and skills needed. There are stick chairs, which are made by splitting wood spindles out and shaping them with drawknives and other edge tools. They have a solid seat and the legs are wedged into the seat. Then there are Windsor-type chairs, which are essentially the same as stick chairs, but the spindles are turned on a lathe. Finally, there are chairs that are joined together in a frame, without a solid seat. These chairs use cabinetmaking-type joinery and require much more effort and equipment.

It is generally thought that stick chairs originated in Wales from around the 10th century, with the earliest known illustration from the 12th century, but obviously the people in York sat on something as well. 700 years later, Holme’s book has tiny little engravings that give the impression that the basic design of the stools shown seem to have turned legs wedged into a seat. The chairs shown seemed partially turned or carved and joined together in some way. This is 500 years later than the Welsh illustration, while it's easy to think of cross-pollination and interchange of ideas, England at the time was divided by many languages and dialects. When Daniel Defoe traveled across England forty years after "The Academy of Armory" was written, he needed interpreters for some parts of the country. So it’s not a given that the design of a Welsh chair easily migrated into England. It’s not at all impossible that chair development in England had its own path independent of the Welsh chair’s development.

Holme's entire book is suffused with heraldic imagery and its allegorical meanings. So what was used as a seat is loaded with symbolism.
In the images below the man dressing flax (#48) is sitting on a barrel or box and the weaver (#49) is sitting on a three legged stool. By the lines on the legs (to my eyes anyway) the legs of the stool look turned and the seat is round. Weaving is a more skilled craft and a higher status job than dressing flax, and the seating arrangements bear that out.

Things to Sit On in Randle Holme's The Academy of Armory, York, England, 1688 2

Below in image #70 a women is churning butter with her dog licking up the seepage from the churn. She is described as

"...A Woman in her Smock Sleeves, seated (or sitting) on a Stool, with a Churn before her....This is the good dairy man's wife who as he is looking to his farm abroad, she is making cheese and butter at home; so that between both there is nothing lacking which is necessary for Good housekeeping." (I modernized the punctuation and capitalization)

This isn't her job; churning butter for the household was part of her middle class wifely duties. It looks like she is sitting on a joined bench or stool. The stool isn't plain; rather, her stool stool looks joined and has carved twisted legs.

Things to Sit On in Randle Holme's The Academy of Armory, York, England, 1688 3

In the picture at the top of this blog, we see an painter sitting on a stool that is very similar to the joint stool of the Dairy Man's Wife, but the lines on the legs of his stool are horizontal, suggesting a turned leg, not the diagonal lines of the Dairy Man's Wife stool, which suggests a carving. Can we guess which household was richer and of higher stature?

In Image 148 below, we go up a notch in wealth and stature. The two gents playing chess are sitting at joined and carved armchairs. After all, if you have the time to play cards you are a person of leisure and therefore some wealth.

Things to Sit On in Randle Holme's The Academy of Armory, York, England, 1688 4

From a factual standpoint, poorer women doing work sat on stools, craftspeople sat on slightly better and fancier stools, women with some status sat on even nicer stools. And guys with enough status to hang around playing games sat on chairs.
I am not convinced that the use of the appropriate chairs and stools as an allegorically for all of the trades and people in the book was anything more than an accurate description of what Holme saw when he created the original sketches from observation. The best examples in the book of furniture being used allegorically are in these images:

Things to Sit On in Randle Holme's The Academy of Armory, York, England, 1688 5
Image Number 2 is an image of image of Jesus sitting on what looks like a box or chest. The explanatory text says:

"He beareth Luna, Our Saviour sitting on a Humet Saphir, Habited in a long Robe... so this is the most certain Figure and lively description of his humanity, and being in the flesh: which is manifested by his Living in, and Preaching to the World." (edited for ease of reading, the full original scan is below)

"Sitting on a Humet Saphir" in modern English means "Sitting on a Jeweled Slab" or "Slab of precious stone," depending on how you read it. And this is the point. Jesus, being humble, sat on a rock, but in tribute to his being the Savior, it's a rock of precious stature.

Just underneath (#10) is an engraving of a Bishop sitting in a chair. And the text (see below) specifically notes that he is sitting on a chair and also goes over each item of luxury illustrating his power and authority. This is all highly symbolic. Jesus, with his divine power and humanity, does not need the trappings of power to be the Savior and also does not need a symbol of authority like a chair or throne. The Bishop, who is not divine, does.
(Note: There are many depictions of Jesus that pre-date this book, some sitting plainly, some on sumptuous thrones.)

This is one of the reasons I find the study of tools and furniture so interesting. We can see and infer how furniture object fit into the lives of the people who went before us.

If you are interested in making chairs and stools following a historic model, we have loads of books on the subject. For stick chairs, check out "Welsh Stick Chairs", "The Stick Chair Book, and "The Stick Chair Journal." For a more English take and certainly for a more affluent customer, check out Make a Joint Stool from a Tree"

In my next exploration of chairs I'm going to move forward in time by a hundred years. That's when things start looking familiar.

More images of various trades including #36 of a cobbler sitting next to a low bench with his tools
More images of various trades including #36 of a cobbler sitting next to a low bench with his tools

The full description of Jesus
The full description of Jesus, and other elements in the engraving

The description of the Bishop
The description of the Bishop

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