Macquarie Chair

Macquarie Chair

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Construction of the Chairs History of the Chairs Early Colonial Timber Furniture

Towards the end of his governorship in New South Wales Lachlan Macquarie commissioned two convict artisans, William Temple and John Webster, to make him two large ornamental chairs. These chairs appear to have been designed for matters of state rather than personal comfort, and are likely to be the two large armchairs referred to in the inventory of the contents of the drawing room of Government House, Sydney drawn up by Macquarie's aide-de-camp, Henry Colden Antill, in March 1821. One of these chairs is now the property of Macquarie University, the other belongs to the Powerhouse Museum, (formerly the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), Sydney.

Construction of the Chairs


1310mm (overall)
680mm (to top of front legs)
340mm (to underside of seat rails)

730mm (front)
610mm (back)


Photo: Macquarie University Photographer.
Copyright © 1995

The chairs were constructed from rose mahogany or Australian rosewood (Dysoxylon fraseranum) and are the earliest known examples of a style known as "Colonial Gothic". They feature extensive gothic decorative features, derived in part from designs appearing in George Smith's Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration published in London in 1808.

These designs include pointed arches, pinnacles and pierced quatrefoils. The chairs built for Macquarie also include pierced fretwork along the lower part of the back and blind fretwork on the leg facings. All faces of the legs and the sides of the seat rails have casuarina panels set into them, while the top rail of each chair has a carved arm clutching a dagger or skion dhu (the crest of the Macquarie family) and there are finials on top of each back leg.

Both chairs have been repaired and modified a number of times in the period since 1821, including the replacement of the carved arm and dagger crest on the top rail of the Museum chair during restoration work carried out in Sydney in 1969/70. Fragments of the carved crest had been referred to in a letter to the Vancouver City Museum in 1937 but these were missing when the chair was finally shipped to Australia. When the new carving was carried out in Sydney the University chair was used as a model.

The chairs no longer have their original upholstery though some of it survived until the return of the chairs to Australia in the 1960's. Restoration work carried out in October 2000 and August 2006 has further increased the similarity between the two chairs: both the Museum chair and the University chair now have kangaroo fur on the seat as well as on all their inside and outside panels. Prior to this, the University chair had tan leather on the seat and inside side panels, and kangaroo fur on the inside rear panel and the outside panels [see below].

However, it is the substantial differences between the two chairs that are more important to note:

Firstly, the finials on the top of each back leg are plain on the University chair, and ornately carved on the Museum chair. This reflects the fact that the finials on the University chair are made from African mahogany (Khaya ivorensis) (this appears to be an early replacement), while those on the Museum chair are the original rose mahogany carved by John Webster

Secondly, the underside of the top rail of the University chair is lacking the two carved rosettes that appear on the Museum chair. A photograph taken of the chair in the 1930's, shows that the rosettes were missing, and closer examination during conservation work in 1991 has confirmed that the rosettes existed once but had been sawn off, (presumably to facilitate upholstering).

Thirdly, the back of the University chair is now a stained plywood panel, whereas it is upholstered on the Museum chair.

In all other aspects of detail and proportions the two chairs are almost identical.

History of the Chairs

The evidence suggests that the two 'Macquarie' chairs were constructed during the six-month period between the arrival of John Webster on 7 August 1820 and their listing in the Government House inventory of 21 March 1821.

[At a later date Temple and Webster were commissioned by Thomas Hobbes Scott, secretary to Commissioner J. T. Bigge (and subsequently appointed Archdeacon of New South Wales [1824-1829]) to make him a chair of similar proportions - though with some slight alterations. This chair is now located in St. James Church, Sydney].

When Governor Macquarie left New South Wales in February 1822 he took the two chairs back with him to his estate on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. The chairs passed from Isabella nee Campbell, the widow of Governor Macquarie's son, Lachlan (who died in 1845), through Lt. Col. Charles Greenhill Gardyne to Governor Macquarie's nephew George Willison Macquarie (1816-1894), who in turn bequeathed them to his two sons, Rowland (1873-1945) and Archibald James (1875-1945).

Both brothers emigrated to Canada in the 1890's, taking the chairs with them. Rowland worked as a marine engineer (with 1st Class papers) and eventually the chair in his possession was passed (via his widow, Elizabeth Stewart) to the Vancouver City Museum in the 1930's. It remained there until 1961 when it was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (formerly known as the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences). This chair has subsequently been on display at Old Government House, Parramatta; the Mint Museum, Sydney; and the Museum of Sydney (MOS), as well as at the Powerhouse Museum.

The second chair remained as part of the possessions of the family of Archibald James Macquarie in New Brunswick (eastern Canada). He worked as banker, firstly with the Bank of Scotland, and subsequently with the Bank of British North America(1897-1903), and the Bank of New Brunswick (1904-). Later he became the manager of different branches of the Bank of Nova Scotia, in the Maritime Provinces, and continued living in eastern Canada after his retirement until his death on 29 December 1945. Twenty years later, following the death of Archibald's widow, Constance Sturdee, in 1965, the chair was bequeathed to one of her three daughters, Phyllis (Mrs J.E. Taylor), who arranged for it to be shipped back to Edinburgh, Scotland (in the same year).

At this stage details of the existence of the chair were conveyed by Malcolm Ellis (a noted Australian journalist/historian, and the first major biographer of Lachlan Macquarie) to the executive staff of the newly-founded Macquarie University. It was suggested that the acquisition of this chair would provide a unique link between the University and its namesake. Negotiations began and the chair was subsequently presented as a gift by Mrs J. E. Taylor to the University. The chair was shipped to Australia on the S.S. Helenusin September 1967 and arrived at the University in December 1967.

The University decided that the chair would be best utilised for ceremonial purposes, and in particular, for use by the University Chancellor. It became officially referred to as the "Chancellor's Chair" and was a central feature (on the dais) at every graduation ceremony enacted at the University until 2007. At this stage it was determined that the increasing fragility as well as the historical value of the chair made it necessary to discontinue this practice of using it as a 'working chair' for the ceremonial 'presentation' of the Chancellor.

In 1969 restoration work was carried out by craftsmen in Sydney. Some repair work to the chair frame and timber carving was necessary, as well as re-polishing, and the replacement of the upholstery. (It was established that the fur upholstery on the inside panels was in fact 'Grey Kangaroo' and consequently must have been original to the chair. However given the age and brittleness of the skin there was no choice but to replace it).

The photograph of the chair that was taken in Canada in the 1930's (and now held in the Macquarie University Archives) is interesting on two further counts. Firstly, there appears to be a small black shield set in the back of the chair - however there is no further trace or recollection of this. Secondly, the chair is sitting upon metal castors - these have now been removed.


Photo: Photographer unknown
Macquarie University Archives RS 330
Copyright ©

In early 1970 the chair was made available to the National Trust of Australia for use during the Official Opening of Old Government House at Parramatta by Her Majesty the Queen (April 30); and in 1989 it was lent to the Art Gallery of South Australia for use in their " Great Australian Art Exhibition" (May 23rd - July 16). At all other times in the period 1972 - 1990 the chair was located in the University's Council Room.

A decision was taken in 1990 to relocate the chair to the University Library where it could be placed on display inside the Lachlan Macquarie Room (the reconstructed parlour room from Macquarie's house on the Isle of Mull). This would allow not only for re-establishing the connection between the chair and Gruline House, but also help to regulate the amount of humidity and the levels of light that the chair was exposed to.

In 1991 restoration work was carried out by Mr. Julian Bickersteth. He subsequently published in the journal Australiana in 1992 a description of his work and his assessment of the different chairs. This journal article is an invaluable starting point into the history of the chairs and the role of the convict artisans William Temple and John Webster in their construction. However, Mr Bickersteth is incorrect in his assertion that only one chair was taken to Canada (as discussed previously) and that this one was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Appled Arts and Sciences while the second one remained in Scotland. The same assertion was made by Ann Watson, Curator of Furniture and Woodwork at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, in the journal Craft Australia in 1984. We now know that both chairs were shipped to Canada at the turn of the twentieth century.

Lib_LEMR_MQ_Chair Photo: Macquarie University.
Copyright © 2001

Additional restoration work and some minor repairs were carried out by specialists at International Conservation Services Pty Ltd (Sydney) in September 2000. At this time, as the leather upholstery on the seat of chair was in need of replacement, the decision was made to replace it with kangaroo fur. As a consequence, all sides of the chair now have matching fur surfaces. This decision was based upon the evidence of the original upholstery on the Powerhouse Museum chair, which would appear to have been originally upholstered in kangaroo fur. This means that the University chair now has kangaroo fur on the inner back and outer sides dating from 1969, and fur on the seat and inner sides dating from 2000.

In August 2010 the two chairs were reunited for the first time on public display at the Powerhouse Museum. They were placed together as part of the "Inspired - Design Across Time" exhibition and subsequently located in a showcase in the entrance foyer of the Powerhouse Museum where they remained until at least the end of 2010.

In September 2011 the Powerhouse Museum kindly agreed to make their Macquarie Chair available to the University for public display for a period of 6 months. Now both Macquarie chairs have been reunited in their original context within one of the rooms of Gruline House. This marks the first time in at least 120 years since the two chairs have been able to share the same intimate space in the building. Lt. Col. Charles Greenhill Gardyne probably gave the chairs to George Willison Macquarie in the late 1880's, prior to the sale of the Jarvisfield estate to John Macdonald.

Lib_LEMR_MQ_Chair2 Photo: Powerhouse Museum
Copyright © 2010 All Rights Reserved

Early Colonial Timber Furniture

The choice of rose mahogany [or rosewood] in the construction of the chairs for Lachlan Macquarie provides confirmation of the popularity of this timber among furniture makers in the early history of New South Wales. Rose mahogany was a hardwood timber that grew in the rainforest areas north of the Hawkesbury River, from Wyong to the Queensland border. It was used extensively both as a veneer and as a solid working timber. It was considered especially good for woodturning in the construction of small side-table legs and bed posts. It received its name from the characteristic sweet scent of the freshly cut wood, which is similar to the South American rosewood, and the straight even grain of the timber which is very similar to mahogany.

The use of this timber in Macquarie's chairs may also provide an insight into a friendship between the carpenter William Temple and another convict, Patrick Riley, who gave evidence before the BiggeCommission of Enquiry.

In his evidence before Commissioner Bigge in January 1820 Riley stated that rosewood was "very good for fine furniture & for veneering, as well as for turning. Good Bed Posts are made of it."

This view is confirmed further in James Atkinson's book An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales (published in 1826) where he listed the varieties of timber to be found in the colony, including the following description:

"Rose Wood. - Found principally at Port Macquarie, and Hunter's River. The trees are large, and generally sound quite to the heart; the grain is close and fine, and the texture and appearance when worked extremely beautiful, resembling the best mahogany. This wood is much used by Cabinet-makers, and makes very excellent furniture; it also makes very good shells for blocks, not being liable to split."

Archival & Mss Sources

Macquarie University Archives: RS330 (Box 451 S11/B2)

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Museum Archives

Published Primary Sources
James Atkinson. An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1975 [facsimile edition]. First published London, J. Cross, 1826.

The Evidence of the Bigge Reports; New South Wales under Governor Macquarie. Selected and edited by John Ritchie. Melbourne: Heinemann, 1971 2 vols.

Secondary Sources
Australian Furniture: Pictorial History and Dictionary 1788-1938.Compiled by Kevin Fahy and Andrew Simpson. Sydney: Casuarina Press, 1999.

Bickersteth, Julian. "The Three Macquarie Chairs." Australiana Vol.14 Pt. 1 February 1992 pp.11-14.

Butler, Barbara and Kelly, David St. L. "Lawrence Butler." Australiana. February 2009 pp.10-34.

Clifford, Craig, Fahy, Kevin, and Robertson, E. Graeme. Early Colonial Furniture in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.Melbourne: Georgian House, 1972.

Crosbie, R.A. "Clandestine Furniture in the Macquarie Era." Australiana Vol.15 No.1 February 1993 pp.14-20.

Fahy, Kevin, Simpson, Christine, and Simpson, Andrew. Nineteenth Century Australian Furniture. Darlinghurst: David Ell Press, 1985.

Hook, Elizabeth. Journey to a New Life: the story of the ships 'Emu' in 1812 and 'Broxbornebury' in 1814, including Crew, Female Convicts and Free Passengers on board. Minto, NSW: Privately Printed, 2000.
See entry: 'Jane Jones (c.1795-1868)' pp. 80-81 for details regarding John Nehemiah Webster.

Watson, Ann. "Governor Macquarie's Armchair." in Decorative Arts and Design From The Powerhouse Museum(ed.) Elizabeth Bilney. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1991 p.54.

Watson, Ann. "The Macquarie Chair - a Well-Travelled Piece of History", Craft Australia Spring 1984, Issue 3, pp.69 - 71.

Content owner: Library Last updated: 05 Sep 2019 11:25am

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