Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What is Queen Anne?

What is Queen Anne
Good question- I'm glad you asked. I thought I'd give a little Queen Anne primer. Anne, Queen of Britain, (1665-1714) ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1702 until her death in 1714. In the United Kingdom furniture created during and directly after the time of her reign is known as "Queen Anne". America, being a British colony at the time, followed the style and trends of Britain, though it lagged behind by a few decades, and then was re-interpreted in a fully American manner. American Queen Anne furniture was created between about 1730 and 1790, with it's peak between 1740 and 1770. The American Queen Anne style is simple, elegant, and refined.
Here are a couple examples of American Queen Anne pieces so you can get a sense of the style:
Connecticut Queen Anne highboy c.1750
from Tillou Antiques

Queen Anne side chair. Connecticut or Rhode Island c.1760

The Queen Anne style is defined, at the most basic level by the C shape, and interlocking C shapes that form S scrolls. In furniture terms we call the C shape a cyma curve (pronounced See-Mah). If you look closely at the highboy and the chair pictured above you should be able to spot quite a few cyma curves. A couple other typical characteristics- the cabriole leg (close up below) and pad foot (close up below)

Cabriole Leg

Pad foot

With American Queen Anne furniture we're looking for long, extended vertical lines, almost as if the piece is standing on it's tip toes. Because of this I always think of Queen Anne furniture
 as ballerina furniture. 
Now, if that all makes sense and you have a broad idea of what Queen Anne looks like, I'm going to throw a wrench in the works and show you the two Queen Anne chairs that I have in my personal collection at the moment. 

As you can see, both chairs have the s scrolled crest rail (top of the chair) that is typical of Queen Anne style. They also both have a vasiform splat ( the bit in the center of the chair) which is vase shaped, and essentially just a combination of cyma curves and S scrolls. They have nice elongated lines which give them an elegant feel. But when you get down to the lower section of each chair you'll notice something interesting. Neither chair has cabriole legs or pad feet, but rather turned legs and feet. Why? Because both these chairs have lower sections which are a holdover from the previous period which is known as "William and Mary", "Mannerist", or "Pilgrim Century" depending on who you ask. 
The reason we have two periods of furniture expressed in one chair is that there was no abrupt start to Queen Anne, or abrupt end to William and Mary. Furniture makers and joiners would combine various elements based on their tastes, or the tastes of their clientele. These chairs are both from rural areas, where ideas were slow to change and the locals were perfectly happy to hang on to older styles for a longer period of time. In the metropolitan areas of Newport, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia we see more purely period specific furniture that's stylistically more advanced for the time. 
This remains true even today. 
We assign the style classification based on the dominant features, 
here being more Queen Anne than William and Mary, 
and therefore they are referred to as Queen Anne chairs.

Now let's take a closer look at the Queen Anne chair on top, and I'll tell you how I know it's 18th century and not a reproduction. 

First we look at the chair as whole and examine the form. 20th century reproductions tend to be over cooked, over the top, with all the bells and whistles. A true 18th century piece will be more subtle. 

And speaking of subtlety, can you see the very slight slope to the rear posts from the chair seat upwards? This is a nice detail, and often forgotten in reproduction pieces. The joiner who made this chair took extra time and care to give the chair that elegant line, making the chair more comfortable and more beautiful at once.
 We also see the refinement of form in the crest rail. The very soft S scroll of the rail is perfectly symmetrical and ends in satisfyingly prominent 'ears'

Next let's look at the surface of the chair. For the last 250 years people have touched this chair, and 250 years worth of use have left its mark in a soft warm patina. This patina is especially clear in places where the chair was handled a lot

Such as the crest rail. When I move a chair, I usually pick it up from the top. You can see where people have been holding the chair in just that same spot for generations. The maple soaks up the oils in our hands, and the result is the dark rich color which you can see along the top. Much darker than the surrounding wood. That coloration is very hard to fake.

Another place on the chair that's been handled regularly is the top of the front leg post, which extends up past the rush seat. You can see how shiny it is, and how rounded it's become. That surface is smooth as satin, and really fun to touch now. It reminds me of the wishing stones at national parks. Hundreds of people rub them everyday and eventually they get polished like this- but it takes a lot of time. 
Again, these wear patterns are really hard to fake.

More on wear patterns- now we're looking at the front stretcher of the chair. It's probably ash- which turns nicely on a lathe and was readily available to New England colonists. The top of the stretcher has been worn down considerably. It also has the polished look we just saw on top of the front leg post. It's been worn so much that it's no longer anywhere near round. That's because for the last 250 years people have been putting their feet up on the stretcher when they sit in the chair. 
Neat right? Are you starting to feel like a furniture Sherlock Holmes yet?

A final comment about wear. As we say in the antiques industry, 70% of the value of an antique is in its feet. That sounds weird, right? It's true because the feet on an antique piece are almost always the first to go. This chair has slid back and forth on rough wood floors since before George Washington was president. On top of that, if the chair was ever anywhere damp, the moisture would first enter through the feet, causing them to become punky and soft. This chair has lost about an inch and a half of height to its feet through daily wear.

Here's how I know that. If you put your hand underneath the chair's bottom rail, the widest part of your palm should fit comfortably underneath. My hand doesn't fit, and I have pretty small hands. 

Another clear 18th century indicator is the construction techniques. This is a picture of the back of the crest rail, right at the ear. You can see how the crest rail is attached and secured with wooden pins. As the wood shrinks (and it does quite a bit over 250 years) it will contract and slowly push the pin out. You should be able to run your fingers over the wood pin and feel it slightly protruding. Also of note in this picture is the beautiful tiger striping of the figured maple.

Phew! That was a long post. If you found this useful let me know, and I'll keep doing them. We can do all the furniture periods in America from William and Mary through Mid Century Modern.


  1. Oh my goodness! That was so interesting! I'm going to follow you- how did you learn all of that? The chair is absolutely beautiful, btw. You should submit this post at Miss Mustard Seed's FFF.

  2. Very interesting! Thank you! One of my favorite things about your blog is the education :)

  3. Oh yes! Please, please, please keep doing these. So interesting!

  4. I hope you can continue this series. This is so helpful, thank you!

  5. I really enjoyed this education into antiques. It makes me wish to have gone into that field... well, if you would be the teacher. Thank you.