As a teenager, Tim Bowen worked as a porter at a small auction house near his home in rural West Wales. “On my very first sale, about 35 years ago, someone brought in a dilapidated chair,” he recalls. “He was literally collapsing. Every time I moved it, a little fell out. But it sold for around £ 1,000. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy it. I thought it was crap.
Three decades later, and the Welsh stick chair is now the star of the antiques business Bowen started with his wife, Betsan, in 2003. Based in the small village of the Ferryside Estuary, Carmarthenshire (nested between the Gower Peninsula and Pembrokeshire), the couple specializing in “Welsh vernacular antiques”. It could be a 19th century inlaid oak Cwpwrdd Bara Caws (or bread and cheese cabinet, £ 4,650); a late 17th century Welsh four-drawer chest of drawers (£ 8,850); or an 18th century ‘comb-back’ Welsh stick chair (£ 4,450), its heavy seat and rather dumpy legs offset by an elegant double-tiered spindle at the back.
“When I first saw a stick chair I would have thought it was interesting, but I was more in the classic Georgian form at the time,” says Betsan, who met Tim when she walked into Country Antiques in Kidwelly, the store where he worked. for 13 years and learned his trade. Several purchases of ancient Welsh oak, a marriage and three children later, Betsan is now a convert and co-author of The Welsh Stick chair: a visual recording, which she and Tim posted last year.
“What people really like about them is that everyone is individual,” Tim says of the style of furniture, which dates back to the 13th century. “The way they’re built is very basic, really just to keep your butt off the ground. It is a very primitive technique, with wood largely dictating their appearance. Traditionally built by local artisans rather than skilled furniture makers, the shape is more naïve than the English Windsor chair it is often compared to. But its folk art aesthetic has seen it gain popularity with the rise of craftsmanship in general – ancient versions are quickly revived and modern iterations are created by carpenters at Llanddowror (@welshchairmaker) to the (@westofnoble).
“They’ve definitely become a thing,” says Tim. “Because they’re so sculptural, they work in all kinds of environments. I can think of the ones we sold which are now in small Welsh cottages and farmhouses, but also in the more modern apartments. ”
Customers range from local builders and farmers to interior designers, including Rita Konig, and lawyers to psychiatrists, says Betsan, who adds that they have sold a piece to “Anna Wintour’s ex-husband.” And we just sent some nice pieces – including a bread and cheese cabinet – to California. Today, the majority of sales are done online, but the couple are also undertaking projects to “fill people’s homes” – most recently, the Pembrokeshire home of Jamie and Jessica Seaton, founders of clothing company Toast.
While Tim Bowen Antiques’ riches also include smaller pieces such as an ornately carved c1850 love spoon (£ 4,450) or a Carmarthen embroidered wool sampler (£ 850), these are the chairs by which Tim remains the more lively – or, as Betsan puts it, “a bit of a nerd about”. He does not disagree. Instead, he points to a set of four 19th-century chairs made by Philip clissett, who worked just across the border in Herefordshire. “He was just a modest chair maker,” says Tim, “but he had a great influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. Even Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chairs are believed to come from him. When you have a wonderful item like this and you can relate it to the story and how it changed the design, I think it’s fantastic.