“I despise that chair. Take it out of my sight!” These words spilled from a haughty antiques dealer’s lips over 30 years ago; the fateful day that I purchased my favorite chair and fell hopelessly in love with Old World craftsmanship.
I remember browsing in an antiques shop on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. The curated wares were close to museum quality and sported price tags with numerals that resembled my last college tuition bill. I don’t recall what that dealer looked like. However, I do remember that she was well rehearsed at ignoring unqualified buyers like myself.
To spare each of us further embarrassment, I planned my quick escape. As I reached for the door knob, a Gothic Revival chair in a state of serious disrepair stopped me in my tracks. When I admired the graceful anatomy of the barley twist legs, I couldn’t help but mutter aloud, “I love this chair.” That’s the moment Madame Dealer perked up and made her infamous proclamation. To which I replied, “Please let me pay you something, anything.” She chortled, “Fine. Give me 20 bucks.” Soon I was nudging that barley twist chair into the open hatchback of my Mercury Lynx. I pulled away from the curb that afternoon feeling euphoric.
There was one thing my father loved more than restoring furniture. And that was teaching others how to restore furniture. With great ceremony, I brought the chair home to Lynnfield, Massachusetts. Dad met me in the driveway and gently pulled the chair from the car. His compassionate gesture reminded me of an EMT pulling a patient from an ambulance. He set the chair down on the lawn and carefully examined every inch of torn embroidered upholstery, bulging copper springs, and stray pieces of loosened fretwork. “Prognosis?” I asked. He looked over his eyeglasses and said, “This is a great chair. We can fix it.”
That weekend I received a crash course in the art of furniture repair. There were spirited discussions about linseed oil, turpentine, triple zero steel wool, wood glue, clamps, batting, jute, staple guns and gimp. There was a blissful excursion to the hardware store to find a hammer with a magnetic end to hold tacks. And there was a mandatory hunt through the remnant section at the rear of a local fabric store. “Whenever you reupholster a chair, always check the remnants first,” Dad said. When I reloaded the born-again barley twist chair sporting an ivory damask fabric into my car on Sunday evening, I thought to myself, “Who uses the word despise?”
Through the years, the barley twist chair has always occupied a place of honor in our home. The upholstery has changed with decorating trends. Today it dons a precious fragment of 60-year old Egyptian cotton that previously enjoyed life as a jib on a vessel that sailed along the Chesapeake Bay.
Twist of Fate
All these years later, we are restoring Restmere. While delving into this home’s extraordinary history, we learned that when Adolph Audrain lived here during the early 20th century, most rooms were decorated with Gothic Revival furniture that he purchased in France. When Prohibition prompted Audrain to move to France, he sold Restmere and all of his furnishings. Maybe the barley twist chair was among the collection and has returned home to Restmere? Who knows? As a nod to Audrain, the barley twist chair presides on the stair landing beneath a stained-glass window depicting a knight.
A Worthy Companion
On a recent visit to our favorite antiques store in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, we found a hall table with barley twist legs, brass claw feet, and four brass griffins that support a shelf. The price tag attributed the table to furniture maker George Hunzinger. But we think the table may have been made by the Merklen Brothers.
Needless to say, the chair and hall table stir a great deal of curiosity. We are still trying to learn more about barley twist furniture made during the Victorian period. All information is welcome.
In the meantime, here is what we know…..
Barley Twist Furniture History
Although barley twist conjures image of sugar candy, the classical sculptural form applies to architecture, sculpture and furniture. Here is a blog that does a wonderful job detailing the History
Historians believe that hand-carved barley twists legs have Spanish, Portuguese and Moorish origins. Barley twists became a popular design element during the Jacobean period from 1603-1688. In the 18th century English craftsman learned to use a lathe to create the intricate twist and soon William & Mary chairs, chests and tables featured a variety of open, closed and double spirals.
Barley twists experienced a revival during the Victorian period from 1830-1890. American furniture makers including the Stickley Brothers, George Hunzinger and the Merklen Brothers were producing chairs, tables, beds, mirrors, and clocks with barley twists crafted from walnut, mahogany, and oak.
Today variations on the barley twist furniture continue to serve as statement pieces. Whether newly constructed or crafted a century ago, I hope that you will add a piece of barley twist furniture to your home.