A Windsor Library

Not a class goes by but someone asks me what books about Windsors they should purchase to help advance their studies of these chairs. I am happy to give them a list, and I intend to give that list here, but first, a thought.

It is good that our students want to look at pictures of old chairs and to read more about Windsors. However, nothing beats seeing the real thing. My first bit of advice is to go find some 18th and 19th century Windsors. See the real thing. Looking at pictures of animals in National Geographic does not give you the same knowledge you get from a visit to a zoo or by going on a safari.

One advantage of studying at The Institute is that we do have a collection of period chairs. Many art museums, even in cities in the mid-west and the far west, have Windsors in their collections. Windsors are sold in antique auctions all around the country. Get on auctioneer mailing lists. However you do it, look at as many old chairs as possible.

I know that a lot of the people making Windsors for sale have never done that. Had they any knowledge of period Windsors, they would not make the monstrosities they illustrate on their web sites. The only other possible excuse is that these guys are blind.

Here at The Institute we have an extensive collection of books and other material about Windsor chairs. In fact, I just added to our collection copies of Antiques Magazine from 1926 and 1946. Both contain articles on Windsor chairs. However, you would be better served by reading only a handful of books and then, going off to look at originals.

The landmark book on Windsors is “American Windsor Chairs” by Nancy Goyne Evans. I suspect it will be a couple of generations (if ever) before anyone surpasses the scholarship in this book. Nancy spent several decades accumulating every scrap of information she could find about Windsor chairs. Meanwhile, everyone like me who loves Windsors knew this book was planned. We waited restlessly for many years for it to be published. We were not disappointed.

“American Windsor Chairs” is mainly a survey book. Through her research Nancy developed a firm understanding of regional characteristics. These are the differences in style, design, materials, and construction favored in a region. These details varied from region to region, and knowing them, helps identify the place of manufacture of an antique Windsor.

Each section in the book deals with a particular region: Philadelphia, or New York, or Eastern Massachusetts, etc. The section explains the cultural, commercial, and economic forces that influenced that region. Then, Nancy shows pictures of Windsors from that region, tracing their development from the 1760s to the 1840s. The section on the next region does the same. The result is a massive volume of more than 800 pages with hundreds and hundreds of high quality pictures of Windsors.

Nancy followed her first book with a second; “American Windsor Furniture, Specialized Forms.” In this book Nancy examined all the other furniture made using Windsor design and construction. These specialized forms are numerous. They include settees, rockers, cradles, commode chairs, etc. This book is as equally well illustrated as Nancy’s first book. While it contains less of the classic chairs our customers prefer, seeing these other forms gives a 21st century chairmaker a better understanding of scale, design, etc.

Nancy was still not done after two books. Through her research she had developed a good picture of the business of being a Windsor chairmaker. She describes our career as it was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in “Windsor Chair-Making in America, from Craft Shop to Consumer.”

Anyone making Windsor chairs should own at the very least, “American Windsor Chairs.” Whether or not you acquire the second two volumes depends on how deeply involved you are with the craft. All three volumes are so large and contain so much information I will confess that I had not read them completely. I prefer to keep them handy and peruse them as my time permits. I am familiar enough with these books that I can find any information I may need.

By the way, I know it may sound a bit familiar referring to the author by her first name. I do so because I know her. She and I began corresponding in 1975. She has visited The Institute, and even once gave a presentation to the members of the Royal Orders.

Before Nancy published her first book, the best survey book on Windsor chairs was “Windsor Style in America” by Charles Santore. His first volume, published in 1981 was followed by volume II in 1987. The two volumes were later combined and published in another edition.

Besides studying and researching Windsor chairs, Charlie (I know him, too) is also a collector. Many of the chairs in his books are from his collection. I do not know if his books are still in print. However, you should not have any trouble finding a copy on Amazon or Ex Libris.

The English equivalent of Nancy’s first book is “The English Country Chair” by Bernard Cotton. While this book is not completely about Windsors, they do dominate its pages. Like Nancy’s book, this too is a regional study. It is also a true tome with hundreds and hundreds photos of chairs. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cotton while I was speaking in England in 2004.

I have already written about Michael Harding-Hill’s book “Windsor Chairs.” The photography in this book makes it a must have.

Prior to Charlie Santore’s books in the 1980s, the few books published on Windsor chairs were very different. The earlier Windsor chair books were written for antique collectors. They contain little scholarship and frequently, a lot of romantic misinformation.

In 1962 Thomas Ormsbee published “The Windsor Chair.” Ormsbee was an antique buff and published “Spinning Wheel” a magazine for collectors. Along with “The Windsor Chair” he wrote several other books for collectors.

I still have a soft spot for Ormsbee’s book, because when I was starting it was just about all there was. I scoured his book and practically memorized it. “The Windsor Chair” is only a book for collectors. It is not profusely illustrated. It shows the different styles of chairs, but sometimes only one or two examples of any particular type.

From 1962 we have to jump all the way back to 1917. For 45 years, the only book on Windsor chairs was “American Windsors” by Wallace Nutting. This book has been reprinted a number times, sometimes under a slightly different title. We have examples of several editions here, along with an original.

It is important to know about Nutting’s book, although not important to own a copy. He is the first author to try and make sense of Windsor chairs. However, Nutting was no scholar. He was a collector, and was more concerned with what he called “merit” than with dating chairs or understanding regional characteristics. In other words, he was trying to describe to collectors what is today called connoisseurship; how to distinguish a good example from a poor one.

In “American Windsors” Nutting imposed a regrettable influence on Windsor chairs that is still with us. It is responsible for many of the monstrosities that are still being made by 21st century chairmakers who have not studied at The Institute. I plan a future posting on Nutting’s influence.

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I know I did not post last week. I had no idea so many people wait for my scribbling. I received numerous emails representing varying degrees of distress. Some people were actually annoyed that I had not posted. I appreciate the concerns of those who feared something had happened to me.

I missed last week because I was focused on attracting a literary agent for my book “The Comet Team.” Contacting an agent requires a query, a synopsis, and a sample chapter. I had to get all this together and emailed. I only have so much time during a week to write, and something had to give.

The material has been sent and I now begin the part that drives all writers nuts. I have to wait. As a writer it does not escape me that the publishing industry has no guilt about making writers wait. However, once the manuscript enters production the writer is under constant deadlines.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com