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My Conservative Chair by Fr. Benedict Kiely

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My Conservative Chair

Photo: Courtesy of Christine, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

My new chair is actually an old chair, and I love it. I consider my chair to be conservative; whether an inanimate object can be described as conservative is a question for another day, but I will offer an explanation for why I consider my new, old chair to be, if not conservative, certainly a symbol of conservatism, both of the European and very English variety.

The chair is known as a Lancashire or Cheshire spindle back chair. It is called a “spindle back” because, fairly obviously, the back part of the chair is made of a spindle design. Such chairs usually have four or six spindles made of wood. My chair is probably late Georgian or early Regency, made of ash and elm. It is a sturdy chair, suitable for a farmer’s table, and the seat is made of rush, weaved through to provide a solid support for weighty posteriors. 

According to the bible of antique chairs, The Regional English Chair by Professor Bernard Cotton, the particular feature of the Lancashire spindle back is “their sturdy, well-designed structure, which has protected them against indifference and hard use.” This precise and concise description of the chair gives the first clue to the spindle back’s inherent conservatism, or its conservative attributes. 

Fr. Benedict Kiely’s chair, a recent acquisition that embodies everything we mean by ‘conservatism.’

Photo: Courtesy of Fr. Benedict Kiely.

The chair, as stated, is “sturdy and well-designed.” Although the late Roger Scruton had once described as “limp” the classic definition of conservatism as the “desire to conserve,” the chair is designed to last, to be conserved; it is not part of what is now called “throwaway culture.” It might be said that all old things—be they furniture, pictures or buildings—were designed to last. My chair is well-constructed and well-designed, and it has lasted, so far, for at least two hundred years. Will the prefabricated tables and chairs purchased from “furniture superstores” be around even in fifty years, and will we want them to be in our homes, the unloved antiques of the 21st century?

The chair is conservative because, apart from being useful, it is beautiful. Its usefulness would not allow it the classification of conservative; a tree stump provides a useful seat when needed, but the chair’s combination of usefulness and beauty, although simple, raise it above the sole purpose of utility. A chair need not be beautiful, but a conservative chair must be, because, in fact, it is a work of art.

Although I do not intend to attach the chair to a wall and look at it, I have considered doing so, because, to quote the master again, Scruton taught that “a work of art succeeds when it silences those who encounter it.” My chair has been fashioned by a craftsman, an artist, who has used the ash and the elm to make a chair for the ages, using skills passed down through the generations. The polished wood gleams, even though, like most conservatives, it has been battered and bruised, coming out none the worse for it.

Prof. Cotton’s description of the chair’s design and construction as a “protection against indifference and hard use” accentuates its natural conservatism. If it has been roughly used and treated, it has survived. Indifference to beauty, truth, and goodness is perhaps the defining feature of the modern age; a good dose of hostility is infinitely preferable to indifference, because hostility can be fought. Yet just as eternal values may be, in this present moment, treated with indifference, and religion regarded as a hobby as harmless as stamp collecting, they will endure, like the chair. It is probable that the first of the many bottoms that sat upon the rush seat were indifferent to the beauty of the chair, while appreciating the utility, but to appreciate it now is to acknowledge its place in history.

Does one get attached to an electric kettle or a plastic bowl, a television set, or a perspex table? “We are,” wrote Scruton, “attached to the things we love and we wish to protect them from decay,” which is why, as he noted, “conservatism is the philosophy of attachment.” Whilst Christianity teaches the practice of detachment from material things, it also acknowledges that the love of beautiful things—as long as they are not worshiped—in some sense speak of the Creator of all things. The first biographer of St. Francis of Assisi, Friar Thomas of Celano, wrote that in beautiful things St. Francis saw “Beauty itself.” 

Perspex—also known as acrylic or plexiglass—is a transparent thermoplastic used as a lightweight alternative to glass. When used to produce furniture such as chairs or tables for the home—even by a famous industrial architect and designer like Philippe Starck—it is a monstruous affair.

Photo: Courtesy of Starck Ting via Flickr, licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic.

The true and venerable quality of attachment must be allied—to be pure—with gratitude. Perhaps that is why—when questioned by the astonished disciples after the description by Jesus of the great difficulty the rich will have in entering the kingdom of heaven—Jesus continued that: “with God, all things are possible.”

Conservatives are grateful, and they are rightly attached to things which encourage their gratitude. I am attached to my chair, and I am grateful that it was made. I am grateful that it was sturdily and beautifully made. I am grateful it has survived. I am grateful it is mine, for a time, until someone else, when I am a half-remembered dream, can enjoy it.

Finally, the chair is ‘conservative’ because it speaks of ‘home,’ the place that Scruton said “defines us, that we hold in trust for our descendants, and that we don’t want to spoil.” Just like home, the inanimate object tells a story. In fact it tells, or could tell, if it could talk, many stories.

That is part of the joy of owning antiques: imagining the stories behind the object. Who made it? Who bought it for the first time? Where did it travel, and what, in a sense, did it see? This chair possibly saw, or lived through, the Battle of Waterloo, the Boer War, the Great War and the horrors of the Second World War. For its first one hundred years, any female who sat upon it did not have the right to vote, and a baby who sat upon it in 1900 lived to see a man walk on the moon.

It was another true conservative and warrior for the truth, Hilaire Belloc, who perhaps best expressed the meaning of my conservative chair and the significance of home when he wrote that it is “the inanimate friends, which are the truest and which never betray, the walls and scent of home; when we lose these we lose, as it were, ourselves. It is a sharp foretaste of death.”

Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.

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