The Balloon-back chair (1830-1850)

No other piece of furniture has had quite the same fall from grace among collectors as has the balloon back dining chair. Once the most highly sought after piece of colonial furniture – a set of ballon-backs, however pert, not longer attracts much attention in the sale rooms which is sad.

This is a little history piece – again written for another purpose – I hope readers might enjoy.

It is often supposed that because King William IV was, unlike his brother George IV, not a high-profile patron of the arts, nor a private collector, that little design development occurred during his reign. The appearance of Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria on the design scene after 1840 threw a further shadow across William’s reign. Generally it is considered that under the influence of William and his consort, Queen Adelaide, there was little more than a general coarsening of proportion and a darkening of colour represented by the popularity of mahogany.

Yet the period 1830-1850 does deliver one interesting progression in design – the development of the balloon-back dining chair. Although the end result – the Victorian balloon-back chair – might not be as acclaimed as it once was, the transitional points in its development parallel the early colonial period in New Zealand and therefore remain instructional to scholars of New Zealand furniture.

In 1830, when William succeeded to the throne, all chairs, dining and otherwise, were what might be deemed sub-classical in pattern. This meant that a broad horizontal yoke rail extended well beyond the plain back uprights, these were in themselves extensions of plain rear legs. Below the yoke rail appeared a much narrower, horizontal splat. This was accompanied by a padded seat (often dropped-in) and straight (often turned) front legs. Should such chairs be destined for the more prestige setting of the drawing-room or a parlor, then they might be enhanced by the addition of volutes to the yoke-end, decorated uprights, a carved splat, or other similar embellishments.

It is possible that we now forget, the role of the upright chair in the drawing-room situation, as opposed to that of the dining room. Today’s ‘lounge’ is by definition dominated by fully upholstered furniture. This was not the case of the William & Adelaide period, or that of the early Victorians, in which a number of  wood-framed upright chairs were a necessity for any formal room and their ease of transport essential to the use of such rooms.

By 1835, the yoke-back dining room chair and the scroll-back drawing-room chair are evolving together, but on separate paths towards a new form.  Although the balloon-back is a distinctly British furniture type, the potential remains that the link between the sub-classical type and this next phase – might have been the growing influence of the French Louis XIV style – which provided a degree of sinuousness, not native to the British imagination. Regardless of origin, by 1835 the yoke end has been rounded off – no longer extending beyond the rail and it is now integrated into the upright. At the same time the parlour chair had moved to a point where the scroll top carving has near been eliminated leaving a plain curved top.

The balloon-back was established by 1845 and within five years all trace of the yoke-back had disappeared. This remained the pattern for dining room chairs into the 1860s. Dining room chairs were almost always more austere than their parlour equivalents. Similarly library chairs remained simple and not decorated, befitting the perceived masculinity of such spaces. In the drawing-room however a balloon back might feature a carved splat – or other decoration – within the round of the upright.

Cabriolet legs began appearing after 1850 on chairs destined or the parlour. This fashion was encouraged by the Great Exhibition of 1851 at which Rococo features were a distinctive feature – and ensured that the fashion for the curvilinear held say for some decades to come.

It is worth noting the development of particularly delicate variations on the baloon-chair form intended for the boudoir. These fancy chairs were lighter in build. The newer, more delicate, frame required the addition of one, and often two, sets of side stretchers running between back and front legs. Similarly lighter coloured woods (birch or maple) required japanning or another painted surface. These chairs were designed entirely for us within the space of the lady’s bedroom and not for the public rooms.


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1 Response to The Balloon-back chair (1830-1850)

  1. heather machin says:

    found a wee typo, not coursening, but coarsening

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