Enter the Regency era metamorphic library chair!
Clive Taylor has shown that the tables, chairs and stools containing library steps were patented in Great Britain by Robert Campbell in 1774 but this innovative chair-based design did not become immediately popular. Once the Regency was established, a neo-classical interpretation of Campbell’s Metamorphic Library Chair concept started to become popular in London. Any early attributions rely heavily on two contemporary sketches. The first image, by Rudolph Ackermann in 1811, showed a Morgan and Sanders chair, while the second was of a Gillows chair in 1834.
English library chair cum ladder, 1820
And just as they were fascinated with mechanical curiosities and dual-purpose furniture during the Regency, so we are today. The design was clever, compact, saved space in the library and looked good.
Metamorphic/mechanical furniture had been used elsewhere. There was plenty of discussion in the antiques literature about clever cabinet makers who designed and made lovely objects for the courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI in France.
Furthermore it was common for French, German and British military officers to order comfortable furniture while travelling behind their armies to battle fields. Sean Clarke has shown that at least for JW Allen Co and John Shepherd Co, campaign furniture it was a natural addition to their trunk making role. If this was true, the majority of makers of campaign furniture were to be found under trunk makers as opposed to cabinet makers in the trade directories. Ordinary cabinet makers, asked by army officers to adapt their standard work, would also make travel furniture as one-off bespoke pieces.
Of course the designs of these officers’ objects had to be light, easily packed and small enough to fit into military camps. As well as elegant! As you can see from the British Lieut General's example, he wanted portable trunks that could be reassembled into a beautiful mahogany and brass chest of drawers.
a Lieut General's brassed edged mahogany campaign chest, British army, c1840
Christie’s described their library chair as follows. A Regency mahogany metamorphic library open armchair, after a design by Morgan and Sanders, early C19th. Note the curved tablet toprail above a horizontal bar splat, the downswept reeded scrolled arms, the caned seat and reeded sabre legs, opening to form a four-tread set of library steps.
Kenneth Hutter Auctions’ Regency mahogany metamorphic library chair was similar. The hinged seat falls forward to form four steps, the highest being 28". Note the reeded frame with caned seat and scrolled arms. In chair form, the object is 36" high.
Antiques Now showed a similar Regency metamorphic library chair made in c1811 and attributed to Morgan and Sanders. As with the other neoclassical style Trafalgar chairs, this one could be converted into a small set of library steps. But here was something different. Apparently Morgan and Sanders offered upgrades to their standard design; this rare example included over-scrolled uprights and a caned back.
Antiques Atlas agreed that dual-purpose chairs and tables became fashionable as wealthy merchants and landowners revelled in the novelty and ingenuity of space-saving mechanical furniture. And they agreed that most metamorphic chairs of this type concealed library steps. What was exciting about the Antiques Atlas example was that the chair opened to reveal a small library table. It was presumably designed and built in France during the reign of Louis XVI or during the early years of the Napoleonic Empire (1790-1805). The chair was made of walnut with a carved, demi-lune or fan-shaped backrest.
French library chair cum table, 1790-1805