Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Who is afraid of red, yellow and blue?

Barnet Newman - Who is afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

A bit curious opening for a blog on medieval furniture, a contemporary artist that has attracted much attention with his paintings, especially those (including this one) that were violently attacked with knives by people who did not like the art style. But hopefully the image makes sense when reading the remainder of this post.

Around seven years ago I was helping our neighbours with the transport of a new sewing machine for (historic) shoemaking. At the place where we collected the machine, there stood a neglected Glastonbury type chair. When the owner heard that I made medieval furniture he donated me the chair. I did not like the chair. It was ugly, made from cheap spruce and had become mouldy from staying outside too long in rainy weather. But I thought perhaps I can upgrade the chair into a version that my neighbours will like. Then I discovered that this Glastonbury chair was wrongly constructed (see previous post). More work needed to be done.

It became a long term project, I only worked on it when the projects I liked were finished and I had nothing else on hand. First, the chair was cleaned with chlorine to remove the mould and the parts were dried for several months. Then, the construction was corrected by glueing an extra piece of wood on the outside of the backrest, so the were parallel again with the rest of the chair. There is no historical evidence for such a solution, but it works and is easier that reworking the seating and backrest. Then, to create a more comfortable chair, all sharp edges were rounded, either by using a router, spokeshave, draw-knife or scraper.

 Left: the extra piece of wood added to the backrest to enable a parallel armrest. Right: the trefoil decoration on the armrest.

Next, I carved a 'Gelderse' (Tudor) rose on the backrest, as this is the sign of the historic clothing company of my neighbours. Also I made some trefoil decorations on the armrest. In the end I had an upgraded, but still ugly spruce chair. Only one thing could hide that it was made from spruce: paint.

Left: The carved 'Gerderse' rose on the backrest, already covered in a layer of gesso. Right: The painted  rose.

The question then arises was medieval furniture painted, especially late medieval furniture. There is a lot of debate around this theme, but the answer is of course yes (see the blog of Johann International for example, the advocate of painted medieval furniture - for instance this and this post). A very large part of the medieval furniture was painted, but there are two causes why most is lost. First, time causes the decay of the decoration by use of the item itself as well as by changing environmental (moisture) conditions. Secondly, in the neogothic 19th century they found pure oak wood more to their liking. Thus, the furniture was stripped of their paint, though sometimes traces of it still can be found. The original Glastonbury chair has much decorative carving on the armrests that would have stand out better if it was painted. I do not know if this original indeed was painted, but the spruce one now is ... in Red, Yellow and Blue.

Who is afraid of a red, yellow and blue Glastonbury chair?

The broken down Glastonbury chair ready for transport to their new owners, 
the Gelderse Roos historical clothing company


  1. Was furniture painted during that era? Yes
    Were common items of furniture painted blue? No
    I guess that means this chair was used as a portable throne :)

    Yellow, red, green, white or black are historically more appropriate paint colors for an object that is not by its nature a precious one which would be deserving of the most expensive, and hard to obtain, paint color.

    1. The blue used is the vegetable indigo. It is relatively expensive, but not that extreme of the lapis lazuli. As blues were also used in fresco painting, i.e. large surfaces, there should be cheap alternatives in medieval times that could also be put on a chair.
      Anyway, the point of this blogpost was that you should not be afraid to paint your piece of furniture. My painted glastonbury chair would fail the medieval test anyway, even unpainted.

  2. Bravo, The chair looks much better now and is not outside of the real of possibilities as far as decorative scheme. There were inexpensive blue-ish colours available, just not so blue as yours, which could have been used to paint such a chair. Anyway, nice save of an otherwise not very attractive object.