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Posted December 24, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Sittin' pretty: Historic chairs on display at Winchester museum

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER - What do Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and the Fravel family of Woodstock have in common? They all produced artwork that has been on display in the same gallery recently at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester.

The latest exhibit at the museum highlights historic chairs constructed around the valley by several chair makers, including the Fravels.

"We tried to do sampling from each county [in the northern valley]," said guest curator Jeffrey S. Evans, of Rockingham County, whose own chair collection is also part of the exhibit.

The exhibit, which began on Friday, will continue through June 20.

"I pitched the idea to [the museum] a couple years ago," Evans said.

Titled "Come In and Have a Seat: Vernacular Chairs of the Shenandoah Valley," the exhibit aims to show the different thematic traits of local chair makers during the 19th century.

The word "vernacular," when used to describe chairs, is "a style that develops in a community based on influence from urban areas," Evans said. Once the style of chairs arrived in the valley, it developed into more of a regional style, he said.

"Some of the decorated treatments are more naive, generally the chairs are more structurally sound," he said of the chairs highlighted in the exhibit.

"There's never been this many chairs together [from the valley] that have been identified," he said. Especially significant is that "it's incredibly difficult to research the chair makers," he said.

Researchers rely heavily on census information to tell them which family members might have been involved in a family's chair-making business over the course of a hundred years or more.

The interesting thing about chairs as historical pieces of art is that everybody has them in their home, and they have several, Evans explained.

"Most houses have at least a dozen chairs," he said. "There are a lot more chairs than there are any other furniture in the house."

For this reason, he said, it made sense for cabinet and coffin makers to also make chairs. It would drive down the cost when more people were making chairs.

There was almost nothing more useful to own than a chair, and builders put a lot of effort into not only making them comfortable but also attractive. The styles varied from two slat backs to three slat backs and offered elaborate design work on the legs.

"This is about as formal as you can get in vernacular seating," Evans said of a fancy chair signed by the maker, A. Coffman and Son, of New Market, in 1815. "This is the earliest chair here."

Also from his collection are chairs from the Spitzer family of Rockingham County and The Burket Shop of Forestville.

The Windsor-style chairs deriving from England are probably the longest-lasting style of chairs, said Evans, "just because they're comfortable."

Interestingly, the more use they get, the tighter the joints of the chairs stay, he said.

In a lot of early writings, Windsor chairs are referred to as Green chairs because they were painted green and used outside in the garden, he said.

A Green chair, dating back to about 1835, sits near the back of the room in the exhibit.

Evans will offer a lecture about vernacular chairs on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m., the highlight of the Galleries at Night program, which begins at 4 p.m. and costs $5.

"These chairs are really touchstones to our life," said museum curator Naomi Knappenberger. "They are a direct connection to our heritage in the valley."

Those who visit the exhibit will be able to interact with the chairs. Three locally made reproductions sit by the entrance for visitors to test and compare styles of chairs.

"We're actually going to raffle them at the end," Evans said.

Visitors might also take a break from history and play with a chair puzzle to reassemble a vernacular chair or identify different types of historic chairs.

The fact that this exhibit seats itself in the museum right on the heels of the Picasso and Matisse exhibit is somewhat symbolic of the vernacular chairs' worldly influence finding a home in Virginia.

"It's great that the museum can do that," Evans said of the timing. "This is my first time that I've worked with them."

Evans, who owns Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates -- which specializes in 18th- to early 20th-century decorative arts, Americana, antiques and fine arts -- collects historic local chairs for fun, preserving them in whatever state they have aged to be. He has about 300 old chairs in his collection.

"This is what I enjoy," he said.

The exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, at 901 Amherst St. in Winchester, will continue through June 20. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is closed on Mondays, as well as Dec. 24 and 25 and Jan. 1. General admission to the museum is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and children ages 7 to 18 and free for museum members and children age 6 and under. Admission to the galleries is free on Wednesday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, call the museum at 888-556-5799 or visit www.shenandoahmuseum.org.

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