Thursday 16 July 2020

The Mystery Of The Oaken Armchair

Photo of antique oak captains chair with sheepskin throw and cushions
A Cosy Corner
To Linger Longer In

It's that time of year again, Dear Reader, when the oaken armchair gets its winter coat. The central heating is on*, and this comfortable piece of Victorian furniture is a very cosy place to stop right now. If you merely glanced at the photo of this little nook, you may have thought momentarily that the Pipistrellos have gone truly Mad and splashed out some serious dollars on a piece of Statement Furniture. For each winter season, this chair becomes a mock Mouton de Laine, our tribute to François-Xavier Lalanne, one half of a pair of French artists with an eye to the whimsical and surreal.

Photo from Sotheby's of Marc Jacobs in his apartment with the Lalanne "Mouton de Laine"
Behold! Marc's Mouton
... And his Boots (not for sale)
The Deluxe Version of our Chair

What's in a name, you may ask? If it happens to be Pipistrello and you are merely tossing a sheepskin across a piece of rustic brown furniture, then about 25 cents. But if it happens to be Marc Jacobs, then his Mouton came with the eye-watering price tag of US$680,000** when it went under the hammer some months back. And, frankly, I know which of the two wooly chairs I'd rather linger longer on.

Photo of Crococurule Stool by Claude Lalanne, 2011
So Typically Lalanne &
A Biting Pun Alert: Crococurule Stool
A Snip at 175,000 Euros

But hold onto your hat now when I tell you that if your name happens to be Lalanne, Claude or François-Xavier (or both in this instance), some bunny*** coughed up US$882,000 around the same time when their version of the Mouton from their private collection went to auction!**** That's about $1.3M in Australian money. Still, whatever kind of peso you think in, I'd wager you might have a heart attack if you suddenly found yourself inadvertently holding the winning paddle.

Portrait of James Staats Forbes by William Orpen, 1900 held in Manchester Art Gallery
William Orpen's 1900 Portait of
James Staats Forbes
Relaxing in an Oaken Chair

But what happens when your name happens to be William Orpen? This is a name completely unknown to me until quite recently. Mr. P and I were watching a show on the telly about Victorian ingenuity, when up pops this portrait (above) of one James Staats Forbes, engineer, railway baron and inveterate art collector and described as "witty, urbane, relaxed and charming", and hullo!, he seemed to be sitting in our chair! 

Le Chef adding some Panache
To a Modern Kitchen in Melbourne
Already on my Radar

A little bit of a rummage around the interwebs and I discover that this portrait is by Sir William Orpen RA. A new name in this household but my interest was further piqued when I did recognise one of his many portraits immediately as a fetchingly styled reproduction of it (above) has been lurking in one of my Pinterest boards for many a year now, Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris, circa 1921. 

Portrait in oil of Baron Leverhulme, Mayor of Bolton, 1921 by William Orpen, held in Bolton Town Hall, UK
Baron Leverhulme, Mayor of Bolton, 1921
Scuttles my Provenance Hopes
With a Glimpse of a Turned Foot

More rummaging and lo!, William Orpen did not only paint JS Forbes sitting in this armchair but a whole galaxy of British luminaries from academe to industry to politics throughout his career, including David Lloyd George in 1927 and Neville Chamberlain in 1929. His phenomenal success as a society portraitist saw him earning vast sums when other artists struggled. His biggest year, 1929, saw him earning around £53,000 - or £3.4M in today's money! But ... a closer inspection reveals that a couple of paintings do show that the turn of leg is wrong and suggestive of cabriole ... So no banana. 

And squinting at an old photo of his London studio does suggest the sitter's chair on the dais which looks the closest to the object in question isn't the same one in our own living room. Oh, well ...*****

Interior B&W photo of William Orpen's London studio
A variety of Chairs in a corner of Orpen's studio
But none belong to me

But what about the Pipistrello armchair which so resembles the Orpen? It was purchased from an antique shoppe in London during my years there, described simply as "oak", and apart from liking its sturdy and comfortable proportions, it never caused me much reason to think more about it for there was a time when I was rather incurious about such things so never asked whence it came. Victorian****** likely, and of the joined Captains/Smoking variety, but definitely comfy enough to sit in whilst having your portrait painted. But Provenance is something I am more interested in now that there is sport to be had from digging through the digital dross. 

So who else might have had a studio armchair that could have ended up in a shoppe to be eventually brought home a century later by the likes of me as a chair for, ahem, sitting in? On I rummage, when what should I espy but this studio portrait by John Singer Sargent, dated 1890. And Lizzie sits in an Oaken Armchair, no less! JSS was indeed in London by this time and he even promoted WO's work, so perhaps they shared props, or perhaps this chair is a better fit with mine ... Hmmm ... If I could only get a closer look at the legs ... Meanwhile, the Mystery of the Oaken Armchair remains unsolved.

John Singer Sargent
Lizzie B. Dewey, 1890
Fa! Another Oaken Chair Sighting

* Each year we bless Emil Sodersten, our building's celebrated architect, for recognising that Winter is a Thing here in Sydney and obliging us with European-style radiators!

** Plus-plus-plus! a hefty buyer's premium, some tax and a bit of postage and handling. Although you could save yourself a few pesetas by tucking your Mouton under your arm and lugging him/her home on the bus.

*** Well, two bunnies actually, as there was also a Black Sheep that went for the same price. 

**** Sotheby's Sale Total for Les Lalanne's 274 lots was over 91M EUR!!

***** I have discovered some very Interesting Things about this once famous artist, his fall from grace and subsequent resurrection, which I shall refashion into a future post as this one is in danger of going seriously off piste if I don't rein it in.

****** The vasiform splats and square Marlborough legs do suggest Georgian, and it is very similar to C18th corner chairs, but the saddle seat and three-sided box stretcher throws me, so I'm just guessing. And it may even be elm after all but Elmish Armchair doesn't have the same ring.

Image Credits: 1, 7, 9: Flying With Hands; 2, 3: Sotheby's; 4: Manchester Art Gallery; 5: via Pinterest; 6: Bolton Town Hall; 8:; 10: Worcester Art Museum


  1. How very interesting. My dad has an oaken chair which he calls the 'captain's chair'. Presumably, it came off a ship. But I don't know anything else about it. He had made a miniature replica for my son and, now that he's taller than I am, Teddy sits on it.
    I can't believe people pay so much money for designer objects. Things with a bit of history are more to my liking.

  2. Loree: What a delightful gift for your son (and for Teddy now)! Commissioning a chair would have been a fun thing to do, and I understand chair making is a benchmarking skill for Wood People ... I'm with you on your disbelief. I find it utterly fascinating, frankly, and the source of much blog fodder, hahah!

  3. I was also fascinated by the pencil portrait in the first picture, behind the chair. I can't see much of it, but it has a really interesting look about it. A family member?

  4. This was a delightful read. How did you search for peeks of oaken chairs among the portraits? Clearly you have some serious internet sleuthing skills.
    Going off-piste is never a problem. Such adventures!

  5. Thank you. William Orpen was one of my favourite Edwardian portrait artists. Since all his sitters looked modern, educated and curious, I have to assume he was commissioned only by modern, moneyed patrons.

    That all changed in the War to End All Wars, of course :(

  6. Cro: Yes, that's my Grandfather when he was a young man. He went bald at 19 and had a sort of ruff for the rest of his life! My Mum remembers it being done. An artist who met him was taken by their physical similarity and did some sketches as studies for his self-portrait which he submitted for the national portrait prize, the Archibald. Mum remembers the family trooping off to the gallery to see it. Although the signature doesn't convince me, the Ivor Hele winner of '57 is a dead ringer for Grandfather.

    ToF: Thank you! These days museums and galleries have lifted their game with digitising their collections, such a boon now that the world seems to be only able to armchair travel. There are over 200 publicly owned Orpens on the ArtUK website alone, so there were plenty of sitters chairs to peruse. Luckily he painted what he saw, as far as I could tell. A couple, like the Mayor of Bolton, had a touch of foot peeking out.

    Hels: And then he was an official war artist as well. I'm sure you know quite more about him than me, but what I discovered just from some interweb digging is destined for its own post soon enough. The highs and the lows of the art world all rolled into one with his story.

  7. You have made your oaken chair look wonderful! Happy sitting and reading days ahead. 'Lizzie' didn't look too comfy in her chair - what was with her peculiar hand pose?

    Can Marc run in those boots?
    Oh yes, a kitchen with the Paris chef painting would be awesome.

    I also LOVE THAT MAN IN THE RED ROBE WITH FUR TRIM.................

  9. I like your chair the best ....... I have to say that I am a bit dubious about some of the designer ‘ stuff ‘ and I am going to be a bit controversial at the risk of your readers getting angry at me, but, I’m not a great lover of Eames chairs ... I shall await the backlash !!!
    I love the portrait of James Staats Forbes ... I would like it on my wall. XXXX

  10. A very popular chair of its time so I suppose inevitable that it appears in so many portraits of the era. It was quite simply the office furniture of its day for the wealthy professional classes and from my brief research of Lizzie Dewey she came from a prominent legal family, her father being a judge, and her husband a leading lawyer, and so the families were joined. She travelled extensively with and without him and was doing good deeds throughout her life and he worked and sent her and the children off for the holidays alone. I like it that your chair is much loved and feel you could make up a jolly good back story for it. What fun hey.

  11. Mary: If Marc can get a little gallop up in those boots, I'll tip my hat to him! I suspect there'd need to be a bit of arm flailing to help. Running like a girl would be the best descriptor, hahah! "Lizzie" is not the most flattering Singer Sargent portrait by a long shot. Hands and upper arms and eye circles could get an airbrush, especially given that the commission would have cost a bomb!

    Contessa: The red robe could be yours, Bella, if you run for Mayor in your city! Mind you, I suspect you have some suitable mayoral regalia in your wardrobe already! xx

    Jackie: It's super comfortable, to boot, even without the wooly coat. Flat seated chairs are a misery for my bony bottom! Brother has a replica Eames lounger which is comfy but doesn't make for a pretty picture when you loll in it. And you are guaranteed festooning yourself in crumbs if you snack in it. But is it worth many thousands for the real deal? So many of the Iconic C20th chairs are just plain ugly! ... The JSF is a great portrait, isn't it! xx

    Rachel: You are no doubt right when you say they were a dime a dozen back in the day as they are super comfortable for the many hours of manly business that was conducted in them. And too heavy to be thrown about the office in a tantrum. But it's a good shape to frame a subject and makes them sit up nice and straight so there's no danger of a double chin. Win win ... I didn't investigate Lizzie, so thank you for checking. I think she looks rather tired so the busy life could explain it! xx


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