Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Corner Chair: Stylish Seating in a Roundabout Way

By Ian Mumpton

The Corner chair displayed in the Study at Schuyler Mansion
Walnut or Mahogany, Green Velvet Upholstery, circa 1765-1775
Touring Schuyler Mansion, visitors have the opportunity to view an impressive collection of 18th century objects and furniture, including a number of items original to the family. One piece that always garners attention is the Corner chair (also referred to as a Roundabout chair) in the Study. Unlike other chairs in the home, the Corner chair has its seat turned 45 degrees to the usual position, coming to a point at the “front”, with the rail and back wrapping around two sides of the square seat. It occupies a central position in the room as soon as you enter, and its unusual shape makes it the frequent object of conversation and questions: “Why does that chair look like that?”, “How would you sit in a chair of that sort?”

What makes this chair so cool is that there is no single answer to these questions. Instead, to explain a Corner chair, you have to look at who is using it when, how they end up using it, and why they are doing so.

Many early-18th century examples of these chairs either feature rounded fronts or indented sides. According to Jenny Pynt and Joy Higgs, authors of A History of Seating,3000 BC to 2000 AD: Function Versus Aesthetics, early Roundabout chairs were designed to encourage good posture while reading and writing. The sitter would sit inclined forward over their reading or writing surface, straddling the forward leg of the chair. This was not possible for women with their long gowns, but for men it allowed them to put their legs slightly back with their knees falling just a little below the level of the chair seat. This resulted in a sitting position that both inclined the sitter forward but maintained a straight back at a roughly 90 degree angle to the lap. According to Pynt and Higgs, less ornate version of these chairs could be found in working homes in the early century as well, especially those of weavers, further indicating the intention to encourage comfortable posture.

Portrait of John Bours in the Worcester Art
. Bours is seated sideways in a corner chair,
accentuating his refinement
By the mid-to-late 18th century, more angular versions of the chair grew in popularity. Rather than coming to a rounded front over the forward leg, this style of Corner chair, like the one in the Schuyler Mansion study, comes to a right angle with straight edges. This change in style accompanied a change in use, though it is debated whether form followed function or vice versa. Attempting to straddle the forward leg on an angular chair of this sort can be far less comfortable than with its rounded cousins. Instead, by mid-century, it became increasingly common to sit sideways in the chair, reclining along one arms of the chair in a dashing style.

To understand the importance of this change, it is necessary to explore personal display and proper sitting culture of the time. The 18th century concept of refinement held that, just as a genteel person beautified their home with elegant furnishings and filled their lives with intellectual and gentlemanly activities, the way that one presented the body reflected a cultured lifestyle. Proper posture was considered essential to attaining this intangible goal, not only while standing, but while sitting as well.  The easiest way to explore this is through images.

The Wrapping Landlady, reflecting rustic, working-class seating.

The first image, The Wrapping Landlady, dates to the 1750’s. It depicts two people whom, from their clothing alone, we can easily tell occupy a relatively low station in society. To the 18th century eye, posture would be just as clear an indicator of their status. While the landlady herself sits with an upright posture, her folded arms hint at a working-class status. The man is another case altogether. He is leaning back on a bench, his elbow on the table and one leg stretched out along his seat. This is not at all the posture of a gentleman.

The Thistlethwayte Family c.1758 by Thomas Hudson,
in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art
We can contrast this with the Thistlethwayte family portrait, circa 1758. Note the perfectly straight backs of the mother and her daughters, as well as the careful placement of their arms. While the father is not sitting, he is very specifically leaning on the back of the seat occupied by his wife, his feet neatly crossed with his weight on his back leg. While, like the man in the other image, he is leaning, the environment and situation in which he leans indicates a deliberate comfort in the refined atmosphere of the portrait. 

It is important to note that refinement wasn’t entirely synonymous with wealth (though wealth certainly made it easier to achieve a refined lifestyle!), as William Wilkie’s painting of Nathan Hawley and his family illustrates. While Hawley is certainly not poor, the visible floorboards and relatively unadorned walls tells us that this is a family of significantly more humble means that the Schuylers. However, certain touches, including the presence of a floor cloth and the good posture of the family, indicate a aspiration to refined gentility.
Nathan Hawley and Family, in the collection of

If good posture was considered refined, then breaking with that conformity could either mar or enhance one’s social standing. The rusticity of the working man in The Wrapping Landlady is marked by his relaxed, informal sitting habits, whereas the father of the Thistlethwayte family’s refined lean marks him as a gentleman. Of course, in order to achieve the desired effect, the poor posture had to be deliberate. Gentlemanly status alone could not bestow the laurels of refinement upon a sloucher. William Hogarth’s A Midnight Modern Conversation lampoons the idea of inherent refinement with its depiction of a group of gentlemen who, full of too much wine and punch, have turned their parlor into a scene of drunken revelry and contented foolishness. They are neither seated properly nor do they lean in a dignified manner. Instead, the whole party is slouched in their chairs or, most heinous of all, tilting their seats back on back on two legs.
William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern ConversationNote the man tilting his chair on the left.

Corner chairs become the ultimate example of this deliberately casual symbol of refinement. Unlike the working man’s bench in The Wrapping Landlady, Corner chairs, with their elaborate woodwork and expensive upholstery material, are themselves refined. When gentlemen began to sit in the sideways, the inherent refinement of the chair served to bring an element of relaxed gentility to their reclined posture. It seems that this is how the chair in the Study at Schuyler Mansion was used. There is much heavier evidence of wear on the left arm of the chair. Further, the legs on the left side of the piece are much more heavily worn than those on the right. In fact, these legs are worn at a nearly 45 degree angle with the floor. Was someone tilting their chair? It is a definite possibility.

Despite the change in use, Rondabaouts retained their masculine characteristics. Angled chairs and deeply carved rails posed a tearing risk to the fine silk gowns of ladies. Just as importantly, the “art of the lean”, as Dr. Robin Campbell has referred to it, was a masculine form of body presentation. In formal company, ladies were expected to maintain a much more upright posture (for example, while Mr. Thistlethwayte may demonstrate his refinement by leaning, his wife and daughters all maintain perfect posture in their family portrait).

A number of myths and half-myths have formed around these chairs over the years. One favorite is that they were designed for men because men could slide their sword through the carved back of the chair, thereby allowing them to sit comfortably. This is because it is supposedly impossible to sit in a corner chair with a sword on otherwise. In their original use as writing chairs, the number of scholars needing to arm themselves for their studies is presumably rare by the 18th century, but those gentlemen using them to lean back with their feet up would have found them much more comfortable for sitting with a sword on their belt. (Wondering how common swords might have been by the 18th century? Click here to read one of our earlier articles on the topic).

With their unusual appearance, Corner chairs raise all sorts of questions for modern audiences, but as strange as they may be, they are a fascinating opportunity to think about just how important body language and personal display has been, and continues to be, to human society.

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