Will Strafford, Senior International Specialist in Furniture at Christie’s, on why a quintessentially English armchair appealed to collector David Rockefeller
‘It’s a model I’ve always loved because it is quintessentially English in its design,’ says Will Strafford, Senior International specialist in European Furniture. The mid-18th-century yew and elm ‘Gothick’ Windsor armchair, with its pointed-arch back and triple-fretted splats, is certainly a remarkable looking object. Yet, as Strafford points out, ‘Go to any village church in England, and you will see a window of that shape.’
What Strafford is referring to is a period of architecture in English history known as Gothic revival, a flamboyant experiment in design spearheaded by the aesthetic visionary Horace Walpole, that harked back to the nation’s nostalgic vision of the medieval era.
These chairs were made during the style’s golden age in the mid-1750s, when furniture-makers like Thomas Chippendale were re-fashioning interiors for the upper classes. For David Rockefeller, who bought six of these chairs from an antique shop in London in the 1950s, the attraction was their Englishness.
‘They are made from yew, which is a strong and pliant material,’ explains the specialist. ‘It was used to make the longbows that defeated the French knights at Agincourt in the Middle Ages, so it’s a very patriotic wood.’
Rockefeller added to his original six chairs with two more sourced from auction houses, and then had three copies made to complete the set of 11 for his dining room in Maine. ‘The Rockefellers never did anything by halves,’ says Strafford, ‘so even their relaxed country retreat had incredible furniture, a mural by Joan Miró and a celebrated painting by Diego Rivera.’
When the chairs came to be sold at auction at Christie’s, they were split into three lots and all exceeded their estimates. The original six were sold for $336,500, the two sourced at auction for $212,500, and finally the three Portuguese copies for $47,500.
‘The sale was incredibly exciting,’ says Strafford. ‘The chairs came up at the end of a very long session, and a friend who had dined with the Rockefellers at Maine wanted to keep the set together, so he went through a series of intense bidding duels, battling with a different bidder each time. There was a real sense of elation when he finally secured all three lots.’
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Ultimately, it is the timelessness of the chair that appeals to Strafford, and which explains why the ‘Gothick’ Windsor chairs were so coveted at auction. ‘There’s that fine balance between humble materials and sophisticated design,’ he says. ‘The style is very stark but also practical. It’s about form and function, it couldn’t really be more modern, and that is what appealed to David Rockefeller.’