Spirit Chairs

A few years ago, when I bought the carved chair back pictured below left, I thought it was perhaps a Mexican green man image, or just a grotesque face from the carver’s imagination.

This week I was surprised to see a very similar piece (pictured right) being offered for sale here in the Bay Area as a ‘North Wind’ chair.  In this case the artist was named as Elizabeth Smith, who lived and worked in Los Gatos at the turn of the twentieth century.

Combo

I was intrigued. What is the story of ‘North Wind’ chairs?

Well, it turns out that chairs of this type were very popular in the mid- to late-nineteenth century as part of the Gothic Revival period. The gargoyle-type face was usually known as “Old Man North”, although images of other mythical creatures such as ogres and the Celtic “green man” were also in vogue during this period.

Here are a few more examples from the web:

Combo2

Is the North Wind chair particular to California? They were actually made across the US, initially by European immigrant carvers, but the resonance of the gargoyle face with Hispanic carving and religious iconography could suggest a stronger tradition in the West and South-west than elsewhere. Is it possible that these chairs retained some vestige of their primary spirit-cleansing function for the native population?

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