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Red Velvet Chairs

Georgia Kerby, Exhibitions Curator


Do you recall the edict “Seen but not heard” I’m sure the more mature of us  have been  subject to such admonishment. Victorian times were full of similar catchy little phrases designed to keep children in their place.


The Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North holds a number of pieces of furniture intended for use by children. There are two eye catching balloon back chairs with red velvet upholstered seats that came to the museum from ‘Glorat”, the Clarke Homestead, adjacent to Kiwi North.


They were gifted to the Museum by B.Tanner, the granddaughter of James McLean Clarke.


Dr Clarke had commissioned the homestead to be built in 1886 on 232 acres at Maunu, intending to farm and run his medical practice from the homestead.


Many of the furnishings would have accompanied the family when they came from England, including the little red velvet chairs.


Mrs Tanner recalls the chairs being in the parlour adjacent to the front door of the homestead. In Victorian times the parlour would have only been used on special occasions or for welcoming visitors.


The chairs are made of oak, the back is circular in two pieces to accommodate the curve with carving of flowers on the upper part of the back. There is also some carving where the legs of the chair meet the seat. The red velvet shows little wear, I suspect they may have been recovered at some stage. The original stuffing of the seat would have been horsehair. Silk braid, somewhat faded conceals where the velvet has been tacked into place.


Balloon back chairs were a popular style in early Victorian times from about 1845, designed at first to be dining chairs, however their upright style was more suited to the formal furniture of the parlour and they fell out of favour as a dining room chair. Dining room chairs developed a more relaxed style in the later years of the Victorian era. An adult balloon back chair usually had a bracing piece of timber halfway between the top of the chair back and the seat.


Children’s furniture tended to be largely miniature versions of adult size and took little heed of the comfort and needs of younger users. In the Art Deco period, 1920 onwards, health and safety became more important especially in regards to childrens’ furniture. People like Maria Montessori began designing furniture more suited for use by young people especially in the field of education.


It is interesting to reflect on how behaviours have changed in many areas of our lives. The modern home generally does not boast a parlour, children are not required to sit quietly on upright chairs while adults converse. Although with Christmas and school holidays approaching fast parents may secretly long for a quieter time.