Review by Jonathan Prown
American Windsor Chairs

Nancy Goyne Evans. American Windsor Chairs. New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1996. 744 pp.; 25 color and 1,000+ bw illus., 24 maps, checklist of American Windsor craftsmen, 1745–1850, glossary, bibliography, index. $125.00.

One of the more common clichés in the world of American decorative arts scholarship is the greeting of a new publication as “long awaited” or “eagerly anticipated.” Rarely, however, has a work been so deserving of either description as is American Windsor Chairs by Nancy Goyne Evans. This epic study—the first of three related volumes—brings to fruition nearly thirty years of research that has been tantalizingly revealed to the public over the last several decades in formative lectures and articles. As befits a multidecade research project, the finished book is monumental in scale, measuring more than seven hundred pages in length and weighing in at eight-and-a-half pounds. More importantly, however, American Windsor Chairs is weighty in content, skillfully merging traditional decorative arts analysis with doses of history, socioeconomic evaluation, demography, ethnography, and quantification in the form of remarkable physical and documentary evidence.

Book reviews frequently provide a detailed synopsis of the work’s storyline or contents; however, in the case of American Windsor Chairs, I probably would obfuscate in a few short pages what Evans deftly coordinates in seven hundred. Instead, some generalizations about key ordering concepts and themes will have to suffice. Unlike many earlier Windsor studies, this book is not guided by the conventions of formal analysis; rather, American Windsor Chairs is a regional study that seeks to identify local traditions as a means of bringing order to the complex story of Windsor chairmaking in the eastern United States. Interpretive unity is further enhanced by two essential Windsor themes that weave in and out of the text. The first argues that early (pre-1800) American Windsor chair traditions are largely indebted to British craft traditions—an idea suggested by past Windsor historians but never before so clearly presented. Beginning with a consideration of the evolution of the ancient stick stool into the recognizable British turned chair, Evans then usefully builds upon Benno Forman’s theories about the development of turnery and joinery customs in seventeenth-century England.

The introductory material not only provides decorative arts readers with a solid foundation upon which to interpret the form but also helps clear up many of the unsubstantiated folk tales and cultural myths that have long colored the Windsor story. The elusive source of the term “Windsor,” for instance, is conclusively tied to outdoor garden seating furniture created in the 1720s for Windsor Castle, which should put an end to any speculation that the term reflects an origin in the namesake English town. Similarly strong evidence in the form of copious illustrated examples, documented references, and period paintings and prints charts the development and “refinement” of the design from the decades after 1720—although Evans’s dichotomous use of “refined” and “crude” to describe early Windsor designs betrays her stated goal to avoid speculative aesthetic analysis.

In short, the introductory material is highly original and greatly advances current understanding of the Windsor form. Certain ideas are sure to spark constructive debate among Windsor enthusiasts, particularly the implication that the form not only originated but also subsequently evolved in London and the surrounding Thames Valley. British folk or vernacular enthusiasts, notably those who work with the massive body of West Country material, may well be disconcerted by this rather circumscribed notion of urban diffusion. Part of this debate may be fueled by the fact that many American subgroups appear less tied to London customs than to rural British traditions. Complicating Evans’s perspective is the sketchy chapter on “Diffusion of the Form Beyond London,” which glosses over the myriad British regional traditions identified by recent vernacular furniture historians. In any event, Evans’s work stands as a highly useful counterbalance to the recent British work of Bernard D. Cotton, Christopher Gilbert, Claudia Kinmonth, and Thomas Crispin and should inspire an international gathering of the minds—perhaps a symposium—on Anglo-American Windsor traditions.

The main body of the text presents a massive and unparalleled level of regional Windsor analysis. As might be expected, the starting point is the early traditions of Philadelphia, beginning with a splendid overview of the early Philadelphia high-back chair and followed by an exploration of the subsequent developments of the form. Immediately apparent are Evans’s boldly dated Windsor chronologies, a major advancement in a field prone to rather haphazard date attributions. After Philadelphia, the study moves into strong explorations of New York and Rhode Island and then into the rest of New England, including an insightful comparison of Connecticut Windsors that links local forms to the hearts-and-crowns turned chair tradition. Each regional section reiterates the primary theme regarding the dependence of early American designs on established British prototypes.

Along the way, readers gain privileged access to the remarkable Windsor literacy that allows Evans to move well beyond formal description and into thoughtful analyses of even the most intricate stylistic and structural developments, such as the progression of individual turned leg elements, seat shapes, and carving, along with parallel developments in construction. The obscure fact is revealed that the diagonal grain orientation of many Windsor seats reflects the most economical way to lay out seat blanks on an uncut board. Similar diagnostic significance is applied to subtle design changes, for instance to the rearward movement of medial braces behind the midpoint of the stretchers on Philadelphia chairs, as well as the curious evolution of arm spurs, which reflect changing ideas about visual weighting and structural integrity. To assist the reader, Evans lays bare her own mental process by comparing and contrasting new concepts with previously illustrated examples.

The second major thesis in American Windsor Chairs appears in the latter part of each regional section. It centers around the pronounced American break with British Windsor chairmaking traditions after 1790 and the subsequent emergence of increasingly idiosyncratic Windsor forms. The author tracks the movement away from British Windsor customs, which largely continued to emulate earlier forms, and toward highly innovative designs that sometimes borrowed stylistic details from European classical furniture forms. Here, at last, is a sound argument in favor of the “Americanness” of American Windsor chairs. The analysis of post-revolutionary forms helps put to rest the common but historically inaccurate categorization of Windsor chairs as “stick” furniture. Presented instead is a broader and more sensible inclusion of all sorts of turned, plank-seated chairs, including “fancy” chairs, which are excluded from most Windsor studies but which typically represent the product of Windsor shops. Readers thus are not only given insightful reinterpretations of early American Windsor makers, such as Joseph Henzey and Francis Trumble in Philadelphia and the Ash brothers in New York, but are also introduced to later, unrecognized makers such as John Murdick of Strasburg, Pennsylvania, Elijah Stanton of Conway, New Hampshire, and William Coles of Springfield, Ohio.

The massive body of material in American Windsor Chairs is made more user friendly by Evans’s formulaic—and I use this word in a positive light—arrangement of each section. Beginning with a brief regional description, often with a socioeconomic focus, the material then generally leads into a chronological exploration of Windsor chairs, with each progressive stage further subdivided into particular examinations of forms and even singular elements or ideas. Especially helpful along the way are the repeated cross-references to earlier illustrations and ideas, which emphasize the organic nature of the American Windsor tradition. Evans repeatedly alludes to the widespread influence of Philadelphia traditions on other areas, and she reveals the curious evolution of Rhode Island Windsors from highly idiosyncratic designs produced during the culturally unstable 1780s and 1790s to more familiar and emulative designs made during the more stable early decades of the nineteenth century.

As with any study, there are areas of concern in American Windsor Chairs. Although perhaps not meant to be read narratively, the material does reveal unmistakable ebbs and flows. For example, the explorations of late Windsor chairmaking traditions in New York are surprisingly brief, as is the consideration of the extensive fancy chair legacy of early nineteenth-century Baltimore. Another minor criticism surrounds Evans’s confusing and, arguably, oxymoronic term “vernacular-chair industry” in the section on Providence, Rhode Island. More problematic is the description of the Windsor customs west of Philadelphia: “Chairmakers working within the Pennsylvania German craft tradition produced most Windsor furniture in Pennsylvania during the second half of the eighteenth century” (p. 107). In fact, the chairs illustrated differ only marginally from earlier, British-inspired Philadelphia examples. The accompanying text likewise fails to substantiate the use of cultural modifiers such as “Pennsylvania-German” and “Germanic.” Lacking further evidence, these southern Pennsylvania Windsors are perhaps better understood as Anglo-Philadelphia expressions with a slight German accent.

Most troublesome is the final section of the book. After more than five hundred pages on the Windsor chairs of the mid-Atlantic and New England states, only one hundred pages are devoted to chair production in “other” regions, including the South (which not only consists of the coastal or “Old” South but also the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley) and the massive Midwest. Also grouped into this regionally confused last section is an examination of the influence of American Windsors on Upper and Lower Canada. Geographically and demographically, all of these places deserve a more thorough analysis; moreover, the relegation of regions outside of the Northeast to the “back of the book” represents a tired and highly questionable American decorative arts practice. Even a cursory examination of the Windsor customs of these regions suggests the potential for the same intensive analysis, including the identification of intra- and interregional practices, afforded to northeastern traditions. Readers are given a county-by-county overview of the Windsor traditions in Connecticut, whereas the non-northeastern sections in general are superficially treated. Admittedly, the mere mention of the South, the Midwest, and Canada puts Evans light years ahead of earlier scholars, but the unbalanced attention only prolongs stale decorative arts stereotypes about these cultural centers.

Do not, however, let that criticism detract from the overall significance of this publication. In the fall of 1997, Windsor enthusiasts will have the further pleasure of reading Evans’s second volume in the trilogy, American Windsor Furniture: Specialized Forms. A concluding volume tentatively entitled American Windsor Furniture: From Craft Shop to Consumer will follow, a work that ultimately places the greatest interpretive burden on Evans’s shoulders. Despite brief forays into other historical methodologies, volumes 1 and 2 are primarily quantified, diagnostic analyses of regional Windsor customs. The last book, on the other hand, aims to provide the cultural synthesis lacking in the first two. In particular, volume 3 will provide much-needed interpretive and contextual theorizing on makers, patrons, shop organization, and craft practices. Also to be tackled, I hope, is a detailed consideration of the Windsor trade’s complex role in America’s emerging national industrial framework and related analysis in the areas of competition, partnerships, and artisan movement. Until the arrival of this concluding statement, however, readers have plenty to dazzle their eyes and challenge their brains in American Windsor Chairs.

Jonathan Prown
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

American Furniture 1997