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image icon Armchair, c1870

Armchair, c1870
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a most unusual wooden armchair made by an unknown Chinese cabinet-maker in Victoria in about 1870. Made from cedar and blackwood and measuring 100.8 cm x 65.4 cm x 53.5 cm, the chair looks very formal. There is no padding of any kind and the seat is flat, which suggests that this kind of chair may have had some ceremonial function similar to a throne, but not as grand. The only concession to comfort appears to be curving of the armrests and some curvature at the top of the backrest. The overall design is very angular - it has an open, square back and a box-frame base. The simplicity and severity of this design has been offset by some elegant carving on the facing below the seat, the scrolls and decoration around the centre panel and the decorative pierced work that forms part of the back frame unit. An inlay of bone in the shape of two birds can be seen in the top part of the back panel and as three horizontal slivers in the front piece of wood below the seat.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • references a significant aspect of mid-19th-century emigration of Chinese to Australia - with the discovery of gold in Victoria, large numbers of Chinese went to the goldfields and to settle in Melbourne; among this number were numerous cabinet-makers, many of whom set up furniture-making businesses; by the last quarter of the 19th century, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne all had several Chinese furniture-making businesses
  • is a rare example of an item of colonial Australian furniture made in a traditional Chinese style - nearly all the Chinese-made furniture produced in Australia in the period between 1875 and 1914 seems to have been made in an English rather than a Chinese style; this chair reproduces the style of a chair made in China from the 16th through to the 19th century
  • introduces aspects of Chinese design and culture - in traditional China, armchairs like this were regarded as seats of honour and thus were usually reserved for men; the basic design of a rigid box-frame base and a squared back and arms was maintained in China over centuries
  • is an outstanding item of cultural significance - documentation at the time of its purchase by the Art Gallery of South Australia commented that 'The chair is of great rarity and quality and no similar examples are known in either public or private collections in Australia'
  • uses a distinctive method of construction - European cabinet-making of the period used dowels and nails to hold different units of timber together; this chair uses a traditional Chinese method, mortice-and-tenon joints (although dowels have been used to fix the carving on the front panel)
  • references the widespread use of indigenous Australian timbers in functional and decorative items in colonial Australia
  • may have a particular history - a plausible story is that this chair was one of four made by a Chinese cabinet-maker in return for an ox with which to feed his family (the inlaid bone coming from the shin-bone of the ox); it is also possible that this chair was made for someone within the Chinese community of the day or a European buyer, as there was a market in the 1880s in Melbourne for exotic Asian objects.