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English regional chair makers

Published by on 15 December 2021
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Mendlesham Armchair
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Museum of the Home

Windsor armchair with three ripple splats on the back and a curved top rail, made from plum, yew and elm woods, possibly manufactured in Mendlesham, Suffolk by Richard Day, c. 1830 [677/2005]. © Museum of the Home

An index of almost 7,500 English regional chair makers created by Bernard and Geraldine Cotton has been added to BIFMO.  The index was generated over the past fifty years as part of the Cotton’s monumental research into British traditions in regional furniture. Making this resource accessible online opens the way for further discoveries about the makers of the Windsor chairs and turned chairs which were integral to the daily lives of people from Cumbria to Cornwall over the last 300 years.

Dr Bernard Cotton’s seminal publication, The English Regional Chair stands as the definitive study of the many and varied traditions developed by chair makers in different parts of the country. The core of it was to identify the names, dates and locations of makers themselves, the vast majority of whom will for ever remain anonymous.  The Cottons formed a card index of some 15,000 names through painstaking research of local trade directories, census returns, newspapers and other documents, at a time when none of these were digitised and computers were hardly known. Data from the manuscript cards was recently scanned and then transcribed and are now accessible and fully searchable on BIFMO. Funding for this work has been kindly provided by a generous donor and a grant from the Regional Furniture Society. It could not have been achieved without the support of the Furniture History Society, which created and manages the BIFMO site, and the largely voluntary commitment of Laurie Lindey, BIFMO Managing Editor.

Photographs of chairs made by these makers, who identified their work with their branded or stamped initials or name, or with a label, will be added to the entries over the next few months. Many will be of chairs in the Cotton Collection of over 200 English regional chairs which they donated to the Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) in 2002.

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Philip Clissett armchair
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Museum of the Home

Ladder-back armchair with five graduated ladders in the back, made of ash with a rush seat, attributed to Phillip Clissett, 1841-1881 [517/2005]. © Museum of the Home

In parallel with this chair maker index, work is progressing to transcribe a further index of English regional cabinet makers, turners and joiners which the Cottons developed as their research progressed. These were the makers of the press cupboards, dressers, chests, tables and beds, salt boxes and candle boxes, and all the many incidental and utilitarian household objects required for everyday use. The index comprises some 25,000 names and will in due course be added to BIFMO, providing a rich seam for ancestry research and local history.

The Cotton Archive of British Regional Furniture containing all of the material studied and collected during a lifetime of research, is now being catalogued prior to its being donated to the Museum of the Home. The first and most significant part of the archive, which covers all of the English regions, with Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, was transferred in October 2021. Digital recordings and transcripts of 12 interviews with Dr Cotton made as part of the cataloguing project, describing the vernacular furniture traditions of the English regions, are part of this first donation. Further material, including an extensive photographic archive and a series of fieldwork research notebooks will follow next year, as well as research files on Australia, America, Newfoundland and other countries where the British settled and influenced furniture.

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Goodchild chair
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Museum of the Home

High-back double-bow Windsor armchair with cabriole shaped front legs and a Chippendale-inspired pierced central splat, made from yew with an elm seat, probably manufactured by Jack Goodchild in Naphill, Buckinghamshire, c.1885-1950[543/2005].© Museum of the Home

Dr Bernard (Bill) Cotton:

‘My ambition has been to identify the origins of furniture made for the homes of working people, and to record, where possible, the names of makers and the social context in which it was used.  The transfer of our regional chair makers index to BIFMO opens the potential for others to continue the research to which my wife, Geraldine and I have devoted much of our lives. We are grateful to all those who have made this possible and are excited by the prospect of new discoveries being made as a result.’

Liz Hancock, Chairman of the Regional Furniture Society:

‘The regional chair maker database is an important addition to BIFMO and represents a major contribution to furniture studies.  On behalf of the Regional Furniture Society (RFS) I would like to congratulate all those involved in making this invaluable resource accessible online.  Bernard and Geraldine Cotton were founder members of the RFS, established in 1984 with the aim of researching and recording the regional traditions of furniture making throughout Britain and Ireland. This includes the social and cultural context of furniture and its relation to vernacular architecture and interiors. The chair maker database offers new opportunities in this developing field of research.’

Christopher Rowell, Chairman of the Furniture History Society:

‘The Furniture History Society is honoured to have been entrusted by Dr and Mrs Cotton with the fruits of their research which will greatly enrich BIFMO in the field of vernacular furniture studies. The Society is also grateful to the Regional Furniture Society and an anonymous donor for the grants to enable the digitisation of the material.’

Sonia Solicari, Director, Museum of the Home:

'It’s exciting that the index to this incredible archive is being made accessible, enabling many more people to enjoy the rich history of these chairs. Bernard and Geraldine Cotton unearthed so many otherwise forgotten stories in their decades of research and collecting. I hope that the BIFMO database will enable more stories of everyday making and home life to be revealed and shared in the decades to come.'

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About the author

David Dewing

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David Dewing

David is the President of the Regional Furniture Society. He spent most of his career in museums, becoming a curator at the Museum of London in 1979 and in 1991 the director of the Geffrye Museum of the Home where he served until his retirement in 2017. He was Master of The Furniture Makers’ Company from 2015-2016 and made an OBE in 2017 for services to the arts.