What you see: A French late 19th century polychrome decorated and parcel gilt sedan chair. Bonhams estimates it at £1,500 to £2,000, or $2,000 to $2,700.
What’s a sedan chair, and how was it used? Sedan chairs were popular in the 18th and 19th century. They seated a single rider who was borne along by two “chairmen,” who would carry it with the help of the poles (which are visible in this shot). “People were very fond of using them in the 1700s,” says Tom Moore, head of the furniture and works of art department for Bonhams. “The streets could be very dirty and there were unsafe areas as well. With a horse [riding a horse], you were more open to the elements and you were not necessarily very safe in traffic. These were much more mobile through the streets.”
Who used sedan chairs? “A very, very small percentage of the wealthiest people owned them,” he says. “If they didn’t have their own, they’d hire them, like taxis. A lot of the ones owned by wealthy people have lovely painted scenes on them, and incredible gilding that matched the interior of the home where it would sit. People who didn’t have as much hired plainer sedans, with no decorations at all.”
Were they only used in Europe? Nope. “They were used quite widely in Colonial America as well, most famously by Benjamin Franklin,” he says. “He was a big advocate until his demise in 1790.”
What can we figure out by looking at this sedan chair? “The very wealthy would often have a silk-lined interior [in their sedan chairs]. It’s got a velvet-lined interior that’s a little bit worn, but no more than you’d expect for the period,” he says. “Looking at the decoration, it’s been refreshed or repainted over at a later date, because the condition is so good. It’s colorful as well.”
So this was a mid-range model, owned by someone who was wealthy enough to have a private sedan chair, but not wealthy enough to have a fully blinged-out one? “It’s fair to say,” he says. “There are very small bits of gilded elements. The border decorations have gilt, but it’s very minimal. On some of the best examples in the 18th century, the [painted] flowers and the foliage can be quite ornate. It’s not plain. It’s somewhere in the middle.”
How did the rider get in and out of the sedan chair? “The door is on the front, between where the poles are,” he says.
Was this sedan chair actually used? “I think it was,” he says. “If not, why would it have metal brackets for the poles?”
What was it like to ride in a sedan chair? “From what I’ve read of accounts of people traveling in them, it could be quite bumpy,” Moore says. “People carried them, and even if the rider is quite light, it’s quite a chore. But sedan chairs didn’t have to stop for traffic. It’s an efficient means of travel. That’s why they were popular with people who could afford them.”
How many vintage sedan chairs survive? “In terms of 18th century examples, there aren’t a great deal left. They tend to be in private collections or museums,” he says. “The one in our sale is a 19th century revival. They’re very decorative pieces and can be quite sought-after and very attractive.”
How often do sedan chairs come up at auction? “I’ve been with Bonhams now for over six years in this capacity and in that time, I’ve only seen one other apart from this one,” he says.
Who buys sedan chairs now? “If you buy them, you’re not going to be using them,” he says. “It’s either someone who’s a collector, or they’re probably for a decorative purpose.”
Why will this sedan chair stick in your memory? “The nature of its decoration. It’s a colorful, bright piece of furniture. It’s really interesting, historically, and it’s rare for these to come up,” he says. “Sedan chairs are fascinating things that tell us quite a lot about certain periods in our history.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.