THE WICKER CHAIR – that lives its life in France

A chair is a chair is a chair …….

Well, I suppose you can’t really argue with that, can you? Especially, perhaps, as far as this subtly remodelled twentieth-century wicker chair is concerned.

I assume you’ve already guessed who the owner of this talkative little rocking chair was in the years between the two world wars. Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), author and towering cultural icon of her era, has rocked back and forth in this very chair, maybe with one of her big white poodles on her lap.

Gertrude Stein Rocking chair

Image of Gertrude Stein’s Wicker Chair                                                                                             by kind permission of Isabelle Chapman

After the First World War she hosted a famous salon in her Paris home for writers and artists living in exile – Hemingway, Matisse and Picasso, to name but three. Many were they who swayed gently to and fro in the rocking chair during those years; the harmonious symmetry of such movement induces calm and a pervasive feeling of comfort. You have only to think of cradles and children’s swings …

Initially this wicker chair was intended to stand still and stay where it was put, but at some point in its lifetime, it acquired rockers – and the power to move. The rocking chair is an American innovation from the mid-1700s that maintained its popularity until well into the twentieth century.

Gertrude Stein probably bought the chair sometime in the spring of 1929, while she was also renting a house in Bilignin, close to the Swiss border. In 1943 she rented a different property in Culoz before returning to Paris in 1944. Shortly before leaving, she gave her beloved chair to Helena Genin, who had become a close friend during the war.


Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and friends. Toklas appears to be possibly reclining in the French wicker chair

The Genin family owned the chair for many years. It was later inherited by a daughter Joan Chapman who had a summer home in Chazey Bons, and then by her daughter, who now cherishes the chair as a fond memory both of her grandmother and of Gertrude Stein. During its almost 90 years of life to date, the chair itself has become rather well-travelled: Bilignin, Culoz, Chazey Bons, Paris – and now, Le Havre.

Wicker chairs, you know, are very chatty. Anyone who has lived alongside this special breed of chair will tell you that. As a child, I often used to visit grandma’s little room, where a wicker chair stood talking to itself in the corner. Not that I could hear clearly what it was saying; it was more a sort of mumbling and muttering. “A cat’s concert” is what grandma would have called it.

I wonder what Gertrude’s wicker rocking chair has to say for itself? A chair that, with all its theatrical connections, would not have felt out of place on the stage.

Does it, maybe, repeat that immortal line of Gertrude’s? A rose is a rose is a rose …

By Gun Bjerkander Handberg

You can read more interesting insights into famous (and some not so famous) chairs from author Gun Bjerkander Handberg in her two books, Please Be Seated – Historic Chairs and The Tales They Tell, published by Vind & Våg publishing House.  Both books are available on Amazon, various online booksellers and by request at your local bookseller.

You can also follow the author on Instagram @pleasebeseatedhistorictales



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