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Celebrated Chairs

Denis Lake has researched and written this fascinating history of Tasmanian Windsor chair making and produced a beautiful, limited edition book. Windsor chairs spread all over the globe and didn’t get much further than Tasmania! Anyone with an interest in their history should read this book!

Bern Chandley, one of Australia’s finest chair makers writes:

“Several months ago Tasmanian furniture restorer/ author Denis Lake sent letters out to assorted folk he felt may be interested in a book he had written and self-published on Windsor chair making in 19th and 20th century Tasmania. I’ve been longing for a copy ever since and this week, with an impending birthday at hand, it finally arrived.

All hats off to Denis. He’s done a remarkable job. It is everything I was hoping it would be. Now I’m fired up to build a couple of ‘peddle chairs’. The forward is by Bernard D. Cotton, author of ‘The English Regional Chair’.

It is a limited run of 500 with only 100 remaining. So if you are interested in reading a beautifully written and illustrated book on the traditions of Windsor chairmaking in Australia then you might want to get a hustle on.”

Celebrated Chairs

Price: £55.00 plus shipping

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Author Denis Lake wrote:

“Peddle chairs are arguably Tasmania’s best-known and best-loved antiques, but are much more than just museum pieces. They are cherished and often in daily use, whether handed down through families or acquired by collectors.

I returned to Australia in 1987 after 12 years in London training and working at restoring antique furniture and in 1994 moved to Tasmania. This was when I first became aware of the Peddle chair. These sturdy Windsor chairs, made entirely from local blackwood, always created interest in the auction rooms, and I noted the owners’ affection for them when they were brought to my workshop for repair.

Two men made the Peddle chair, George Peddle and his brother-in-law Harry Hearn. In 1997 I interviewed George’s grandson, Francis (Frank) Peddle. The first thing he told me was that his Aunt Eunice, George’s eldest daughter, could look under a Peddle chair and say if it had been made by her father or her Uncle Harry Hearn. But Frank had not asked his aunt what she was looking for, and the knowledge was lost. Solving this riddle led me on a long quest involving the close inspection of well over 200 Peddle chairs, the knocking apart and reassembly of several, and the making of half- and full-size copies.

Antique furniture is usually relentlessly anonymous. Very occasionally the manufacturer may be known, but the identity of the craftsman almost never. This is not the case with Peddle chairs. This book shows how to determine whether the maker was George Peddle or Harry Hearn. It also documents the different Peddle chair patterns, chronicles their making in Austin’s Ferry, Launceston and Nabowla between 1886 and 1916, and explains and illustrates how to identify a genuine Peddle chair.

In telling these men’s story, I have taken the liberty of referring to George and Harry by their first names. While right for our times, I know this would not have pleased George. In keeping with his times and his status as patriarch, employer and local councillor, he expected a stranger to call him ‘Mr Peddle’. I feel that ‘Harry’ would have suited Henry William Hearn just fine.”

Bill Cotton, author of ‘English Regional Chair’ wrote:

“Both Denis Lake, author of this remarkable book, and his wife, Robyn, are uniquely qualified to have researched and written this outstanding account of a chair-making tradition in Tasmania, Australia, dating from the late 19th century and continuing into the second decade of the 20th.

Denis Lake grew up in Brisbane, Australia. In 1975 he left for England, aged 29, to train at the London College of Furniture before working as a restorer there for many years. Now living and working in Launceston, Tasmania, he devotes himself to restoration of and research into Tasmania’s colonial furniture. Robyn Lake works in parallel with him as an accomplished researcher. Her current project is to reveal the biographies of over 500 convicts who came to Tasmania with furniture making skills.

During his work as a professional furniture restorer in Tasmania, Lake has come to recognise a great deal about the history of the settlement of Tasmania following the period of the transportation of prisoners from England in the first half of the 19th century. His book focuses in great detail on two chair makers, George Peddle and his brother-in law, Henry ‘Harry’ Hearn, who came from Scotland, via their early life and training in England. Lake’s ability to locate these craftsmen in the emerging life of this hard-won English colony reveals their story as a much richer and broader historical account than simply that of a tradition of hand-crafted chairs. It also embraces the realities of the challenges which they faced and the unremitting hard work which ultimately led to the varying accomplishments of these men, and of others who similarly came to claim this land.

Peddle’s family formed part of a major chair-making tradition founded in and around the town of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, in southern England, during the late 18th century which continued, until very recent times, providing literally thousands of chairs for London and the surrounding counties throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Peddle moved to work at his trade in Scotland, as did Hearn, who also belonged to a long dynasty of chair makers in High Wycombe.

These two men, although having similar high standards and disciplined craft skills, proved to have very different personalities and ambitions. They came at different times to Tasmania; Peddle to Hobart in 1884, and with his encouragement, Hearn to Nabowla in 1895. Their lives became very different in terms of their entrepreneurial diversity and resulting prosperity, yet they remained linked by their successful skill in making chairs from the famed native blackwood. During their long working lives, and even when mass-produced chairs from the USA and Austria flooded the market, their superior hand-crafted Windsor chairs enabled them to maintain a viable business, and the durability of their products has now carried them into a new phase as collectable antiques.

Denis Lake’s experienced eye, developed over many years of observing furniture detail, has assiduously teased out the differences between the styles which Peddle and Hearn adopted in making turned legs, stretchers, arm supports and back spindles. He presents these differences in graphic form in Chapter 12 as a precise guide to telling Peddle’s work from Hearn’s (although both men’s products are called ‘Peddle chairs’ today).

The general robustness and comfort of Peddle chairs was clearly recognised from the outset, and their chairs found a market in government offices, libraries and schools, and particularly in the growing number of railway stations. Others were bought for domestic settings and have survived daily use for over 100 years.

Amongst the Lakes’ considerable research successes has been the identification of numerous photographs of Tasmanian life depicting Peddle chairs, particularly in use at railway stations, as well as a girls’ grammar school and civic offices. Others show both Peddle and Hearn in their working dress, and later, in the case of George, in formal dress when he had achieved considerable prosperity as a sawmill owner and civic representative. Perhaps the most striking and saddest of the many photographs depicts the destruction of the landscape’s natural resources in terms of the magnificent trees, felled and milled into planks for local and export use, the like of which are not to be seen again. Peddle’s parallel career as a sawmill owner forms an important part of Lake’s book, which describes this trade in graphic detail, with abundant supporting social history and photographic evidence.

Above all, Lake’s meticulous research presents an evocative, well illustrated study of craftsmen coming to an emerging country where small farms and the exploitation of native timbers formed a major part of the economy. His accounts of the two craftsmen, both by contemporary and later family members, are brought together to re-create the many strands of their lives. In this sense, his descriptive account surpasses many other research projects concerned with regional furniture traditions in other countries, where the richness of source material which Lake has unearthed is often simply not available.

Denis Lake has to be commended for his sensitivity towards these men’s lives, and for the lasting memorial to their work which this book celebrates. It is, too, a clear tribute to Lake himself, a contemporary craftsman who has recognised the enduring importance of the history of the Peddle chairs and their makers in the development of Tasmanian culture.”

Dr Bernard D. Cotton FSA

Cirencester, England

2016