Cult Shop: a trove of Welsh vernacular furniture
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As a teenager, Tim Bowen worked as a porter in a small auction house near his home in rural west Wales. “At my very first sale, about 35 years ago, someone brought in a dilapidated chair,” he recalls. “It was literally falling apart. Every time I moved it, a bit fell off. But it sold for about £1,000. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy it. I thought it was rubbish.”
Three decades on, and the Welsh stick chair is now the star of the antiques business Bowen set up with his wife, Betsan, in 2003. Based in the small estuary village of Ferryside, Carmarthenshire (tucked between the Gower Peninsula and Pembrokeshire), the couple specialise in “Welsh vernacular antiques”. This might be a 19th-century inlaid-oak Cwpwrdd Bara Caws (or bread-and-cheese cupboard, £4,650); a late-17th-century four-drawer Welsh serving dresser (£8,850); or an 18th-century Welsh “comb-back” stick chair (£4,450), its heavy seat and rather dumpy legs offset with an elegant double tier of spindles at the back.
“When I first saw a stick chair I would have thought it was interesting, but I was more into the classical Georgian form at the time,” says Betsan, who met Tim when she walked into Country Antiques in Kidwelly, the shop where he worked for 13 years and learnt his trade. Several purchases of antique Welsh oak, a wedding and three children later, Betsan is now a convert and co-author of The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Record, which she and Tim published last year.
“What people really like about them is that each one is individual,” says Tim of the style of furniture, which is thought to date back to the 13th century. “The way they are constructed is very basic, really just to keep your bum off the floor. It’s a very primitive technique, with the timber dictating a lot of what they look like.” Traditionally constructed by local craftsmen rather than trained furniture makers, the form is more naive than the English Windsor chair it’s often compared to. But its folk-art aesthetic has seen it surging in popularity with the rise of craftmaking more generally – antique versions are swiftly snapped up and modern iterations are created by woodworkers from Llanddowror (@welshchairmaker) to LA (@westofnoble).
“They’ve definitely become a thing,” says Tim. “As they are so sculptural, they work in all sorts of environments. I can think of ones we’ve sold that are now in little Welsh cottages and farmhouses, but also ones in the most modern apartments.”
Customers range from local builders and farmers to interior designers including Rita Konig, and from barristers to psychiatrists, says Betsan, who adds that they sold a piece to “Anna Wintour’s ex-husband… And we’ve just sent some lovely pieces – including a bread-and-cheese cupboard – out to California.” Today, the majority of sales occur online, but the couple also take on projects to “fill up people’s houses” – most recently, the Pembrokeshire home of Jamie and Jessica Seaton, founders of the Toast clothing company.
While the riches at Tim Bowen Antiques also include smaller pieces such as an elaborately carved c1850 love spoon (£4,450) or a Carmarthen-embroidered wool sampler (£850), it’s the chairs that Tim remains most animated by – or, as Betsan puts it, “a bit of a nerd about”. He doesn’t disagree. Instead he points out a set of four 19th-century chairs made by Philip Clissett, who worked just over the border in Herefordshire. “He was simply an unassuming chair maker,” says Tim, “but he had a big influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. Even Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chairs are thought to have come from him. When you have a wonderful object like this, and you can tie it in to history and how it changed design, I think that’s fantastic.”