Sussex armchair envy

052_lA friend of mine recently acquired two superb Morris & Co., Sussex armchairs (c1860)

Not that I envy him. It’s just one of those events that plays on your mind in quiet moments of décor envy. I had recommended he consider them as they were out of my price range. He then acquired them unopposed at auction. I should add they were on the other side of the world and he shipped them over – but this doesn’t lessen my ongoing insane jealously.

Every time I see them at his house – where they look great – I realize what really good pieces of design they are. They have a deep ebonized finish, nicely worn in the right places and are as solid as a rock. They hold their own in the space and have real personality. They complement other pieces he has by Liberty and Heals. I suppose my willingness to pass on them initially came from the lack of a meaningful close encounter with a real example? Should I have kept mouth shut and acquired them myself?

Doing the right thing sometimes pays off. The other day I encountered four Sussex chairs at the last of the Auckland auction houses to deal in decorative arts. These were not alas my friend’s fabulous armchairs but the dining chair (both are by the architect Philip Webb). These are in essence a much more modest proposition. However I was not going to make the mistake of overlooking them and left a bid.

IMG_5479The four proved a good example of how sets of items come together over time. What at first seemed four seemingly identical chairs, turned out to be three chairs and an odd one probably by another maker. Within that grouping there were variations of every sort. Two are ebonized, two are stained brown, two have new, slightly clumsy, seats and one is near as can be original. One is essentially a ruin.

There is plenty of online advice regarding the restoration of a Sussex chair and in time I’ll blog around that ruin. Re-gluing the frame will be easy enough but it seems I’m going to have to consider alternatives to importing river rush which I can’t see New Zealand customs being happy about. For today I’ve done nothing more than remove some fairly rotten seating that had long ago disintegrated in order to discourage a very interested cat from becoming similarly interested in deconstructing the three surviving seats.

The bare frame now sits beside me at my desk in a corner of my office. Glancing at it periodically I can see why early Twentieth century writers on design saw the Sussex chair as a key starting point in modernist design. Its proportions are utterly elegant and its method of making both simple and sensible. Not yet industrialised, the frame has nice variants and a solid and straightforward honesty. It might not be an armchair but its the next best thing and I look forward to putting it back together.






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4 Responses to Sussex armchair envy

  1. Greg says:

    This is a great blog – many thanks for continuing with it. Victorian-Edwardian ebonised furniture and picture frames are stylish. The black lines give great graphic structure to the overall room’s tableau. I have several pieces, but paired with some of the flotsam of mid century design, like Middelboe light shades.
    Douglas, I want to write a short piece about Charlie Bond-Smith. Your reference to him in A Century of New Zealand Design is about all I can come up with, other than the odd personal anecdote through personal communication from people who knew him. Where can I find other examples of Terra Lucida work and more information about the pottery? Many thanks in advance.

  2. Well done! elegant indeed!… but which abode to house them?

  3. Lawrence Northe says:

    Dear fellow chair fetishist, Wondering if you might be able to identify my humble cottage style chair  Ta very much Lawrence 

  4. Fenella Tonkin says:

    Oh the joy and delight of a certain Auckland auction house. (not to mention the “crazy, weird” staff), haha.

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