Like many other fashionable furnishings, English hall chairs originated with the Grand Tour, following the form of the Italian ‘Sgabello’ chairs that adorned the entrances of noble palazzi in the 16th century. Although imitations of these traditional forms remained popular throughout the 18th century, all major English designers, such as William Kent, Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, Robert Gillow and others also soon developed their own designs for these chairs, and as the chairs were to serve a decorative rather than practical purpose many of the designs were particularly fanciful and allowed the designer to give free rein to their creative expression.
In 1762, Chippendale suggested using hall chairs in ‘Halls, Passages or Summer-Houses. They may be made either of mahogany, or other wood and painted and have commonly wooden seats’. He added, that ‘if the carving of the chairs … was thought superfluous, the outlines may be preserved, and they will look very well’.
Initially, hall chairs were designed, in the words of Sheraton in the Cabinet Maker’s Dictionary (1803), to be ‘placed in halls, for the use of servants or strangers waiting on business’. However, being the first and one of very few items to be seen upon entering a grand country or town house, hall chairs also had to make a clear statement on behalf of the owner, showing their power, wealth, individuality, taste and pedigree. The finest examples were immensely decorative, demonstrating sophisticated designs and exquisite craftsmanship.
With the explosion of wealth associated with the growth of global trade and the industrial revolution a new class of prominent families emerged, eager to cement their positions in society. Hall chairs, displaying the family crest, sent a clear message of a person’s status.
Today, when individuality seems to be coming back in fashion, these appealing pieces can be seen increasingly in both traditional and contemporary settings. Although rarely serving their original purpose, these wonderfully decorative pieces of furniture can be very versatile: we always use a good pair as bedside stands on which to put a book and a small lamp, while interior decorators place hall chairs anywhere in a house to make wonderful decorative accents or fill awkward spaces. Despite their somewhat delicate construction hall chairs actually can be used for occasional seating, too, if one does not lean too hard against the back. Being relatively affordable and often having quite distinctive if not quirky design, hall chairs make perfect objects for collecting, too, providing endless opportunities for the development of taste of an aspiring collector. The rarest examples, and not necessarily the most sophisticated, are those retaining their original armorial device painted or carved onto the back: it helps to trace their history back to the original owners, and who doesn’t like a bit of provenance attached to a lovely antique piece?
As with any other antique furniture, some rules are universal when buying antique hall chairs: always look for the best designs in the best, unaltered condition that you can afford. Due to a combination of their constant misuse and delicate construction, many of them have been repaired – most often, the backs and back legs – but if the restorations are professionally carried out to high standard this should not be of great concern. Most importantly, try to find pieces that appeal to your taste and you will always enjoy having them around.