The Child Chairs

The rain is still coming down. It seems like the weather is custom-made for sifting through all those old photos of chairs and children from days gone by that have been stashed away for so long.

Some of the snapshots hark back all the way to the early 1900s and are an utter delight to behold. Long ago someone had clearly made the decision to take their offspring, neatly decked out in a smart little sailor suit or dressed in their Sunday best velvet and lace, to a photographer to have their picture taken and printed on thick card, embellished with the name of the photographic studio in ornate gold or black lettering.

The photographer was able to provide all manner of props, not least chairs of various shape, size and appearance. It’s easy to attest once again to the fact that, second only to a dog, it’s a chair that is a person’s best friend. Sometimes a confidante, no less.

The technique that was used for these studio sittings had been invented by a Frenchman, Disdéri, in the late 1850s. His ‘calling-card camera’ made it possible to produce 8 prints – so called cartes de visite – each measuring 6×9 cm, for a fraction of the cost of previous photographic portraits. London soon boasted no less than 284 portrait studios, and in Sweden there were 65 in Stockholm alone.

In time, however, after the box camera had become part and parcel of the trappings of many households, children would instead be perched on a chair in the garden to have their likeness preserved for posterity. Box cameras did not have a flash, so it was always wisest to wait for a suitably sunny day. I can’t help smiling when I see how often shoes, feet and perhaps even part of someone’s head have been ‘missed out’ by enthusiastic amateur photographers who were less than fully focused on the task in hand.

The encyclopaedia tells me that the box camera was invented way back in 1888 by the Eastman Kodak Company.

A little blond-haired boy in an immaculate sailor suit is standing on a chair in the photographer’s studio with a look of deep concentration on his face. His name is Erik.

This particular type of chair was phenomenally popular in the years around 1900. Often decorated with gilded bronze and often with a wicker seat. The style, known as Louis XVI Revival, replicates the lines of its eighteenth-century predecessors but has brighter colours and more ornamentation.

Half a dozen of this type of spindle-back chair, all bearing the owner’s mark of King Edward VII, were sold at auction in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1980 for the now trifling sum of 2,000 Swedish kronor.

The next sweet little fellow is called Axel. He, too, is dressed in a sailor suit. He is using both hands to hold onto another type of chair, which was probably not very comfortable to sit on. Just look at those bizarre armrests and a backrest that isn’t even worthy of the name! If you ask me, it’s shrewd of little Axel not to take a seat on what I imagine must have been a somewhat wobbly chair.

This rather special kind of chair was intended to mirror nature’s own forms and demonstrate its kinship to the distant trees far away outside the photographer’s studio. Naturalistic trends have come and gone at intervals throughout the history of craftsmanship, reaching their culmination around the mid- and late 1800s. A wooden pedestal could, for example, be designed to resemble the stump of a tree, while all sorts of different items of furniture were adorned with painstakingly carved representations of leaves and flowers.

In the wake of the boom in amateur photography came the obligatory photo albums.

Look at this, for example. That’s me on a garden chair – with a bit of my left foot chopped off! – photographed by my father some 70 years or so ago. My friend, a very kind soul, would no doubt tell me, ‘You’ve not changed in the least!’ The brooch on my beret is in the shape of a little white dog. A Scottie, as I recall.

The garden chair was one of many that called my parents’ enchanting summer retreat their home. The chairs were always scrubbed at the start of each summer season, and then scrubbed again before being stored away for the winter.

The next amateur snap was taken in 1920, according to the text on the reverse. The girl with the beautiful big doll by her side has been placed on a chair next to a tree in full blossom. They seem perfectly matched, don’t you think, the girl and her little wooden chair? Maybe it was her father who took the picture that sunny day early in the summer exactly one hundred years ago.

Propped up on the graceful curves of this white painted chair with his blanket and a fluffy white cushion is the baby boy who was later to become my husband. It’s true, believe me! The setting is his grandparents’ garden, and the photo belongs in the album that followed him throughout his life.

The years around 1900 were a boom time for many fascinating photographic studios. They offered a choice of props that ranged from teddy bears, balls and tasselled cushions to pedestals, palms and the occasional sofa – but, first and foremost, chairs of all kinds. It was almost like stepping into a theatrical stage set, only to be terrified by the sight of the director – or rather, in this case, the photographer – who would suddenly emerge from beneath the black shroud that enveloped both him and the wizardry of his weird and wonderful contraption.

The obligatory sailor’s suit makes yet another appearance, now in summery cotton and worn by a boy who is making a visit to the photographer together with his little sister. The photograph was taken shortly after 1900. The image is slightly blurred as it was transferred to a brooch some years later. But that the little girl is sitting on a chair that is well over 100 years old, is surely clear for all to see.

Here on the balcony sits ‘Busy Lizzie’, knitting something for her doll. She is on a visit to grandma and has taken one of the dining chairs out onto the balcony for this photo. The year? Maybe 1935, or thereabouts. The chair, however, can trace it origins back to the late 1800s.

Carol is seated on a beautifully gilded chair, upholstered with genuine Aubusson woven fabric, flanked by her two poodles on one side and her favourite teddy on the other. The photo was taken by a popular and well-known photographer in Carol’s home some time in the 1940s. And the significance of the chair is surely beyond question, is it not?

Gun Bjerkander Handberg

Note from the editor:

Exciting news! Later this year we shall be launching the third and final book in the Please Be Seated – Historic Chairs series. Book I and II feature tales of chairs from different times and circumstances from all over the world. If you are interested in reading more you can order a copy of both books online or from your bookshop.

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