Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Article excerpt

* Four centuries of the wheelchair -- and that is all. The best corrective for those of us who might be tempted to flee to the past is the medical record. There is in the Louvre a panel painting by Peter Breugel the Elder signed and dated 1568, `the Cripples', that I cannot pass without shame. An engraving, perhaps after figures in Bosch's paintings, suggests a prurient interest in such subject matter in the sixteenth century -- the Saatchi Collection of the 1560s. Raphael's Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, however, were designed for lofty eyes, yet it is clear that the lame had no means but a crutch, or maybe a Friend with a wheelbarrow, to help them reach the Healers at the Golden Gate.

Wheelbarrows came to Europe From China in the twelfth century, though the earliest Western representation of one that I know is in the margin of an early sixteenth-century Book of Hours. In this a miniature lady is struggling to transport on a wheelbarrow a daisy in a pot -- one of the scale-changing jokes of early realism. The principle, once grasped, had implications beyond the garden, as in the Chinese rickshaw itself.

The first serious invalid's chair to enter history was made for Philip II of Spain, who died in 1598. The portrait of one of his wives, Mary Tudor, painted at the time of their marriage in 1554 by Antonio Mor (the original is in the Prado in Madrid) had been the first image of an English monarch seated in an upholstered chair. Being Mary, she sits bolt upright, gaining no advantage from the padding.

It is perhaps remarkable that this couple should have sat in two of the most significant innovations in the history of furniture. By far and away the more significant was Philip's. It could be argued that padded furniture has been an invention of dubious value: unhygienic, and by no means of necessity more comfortable than the judiciously disposed cushions which feature so delectably in fifteenth-century paintings of interior scenes, be they depictions of the Arnolfini family or the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel.

The immediate source of the remarkable drawing of Philip II in old age, seated in a chair with a quilted back, hinged arms and ratchets to adjust the angle of its back and legs, comes from Henry Howard's Dictionaire de l'Ameublenment...' (Paris 1887-90, 4 vols. p. 196). He claimed that the original was in die Royal library in Brussels, and no doubt it was, but it has not been traced there in more recent times. The illustration, and it includes a side view showing how the chair worked, has pride of place in Peter Thornton's Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, Yale University Press, 1978 and 1983, p. 197).

The chair had had a predecessor, one invented by Balthazar Hacker of Nuremburg in 1588, which went on wheels and could become a bed. We have no illustration of that prototype, but we know a lot about the one designed for the King of Spain by the Flemish nobleman, Jehan Lhermite. In his memoirs Lhermite made a claim that deserves to echo down four centuries: `Though it was but of wood, leather and ordinary iron [it] was worth ten times its weight in gold and silver for his Majesty's comfort'.

To the best of my small knowledge, this is the first use of the word 'comfort' with reference to ease of the body, as opposed to ease of the spirit. Of the 204 occurrences of the When, in Anthony and Cleopatra, Caesar suggests that, after Anthony's death, Cleopatra should be offered

... what comforts

The quality of her passion shall require,

Lest in her greatness, by some mortal stroke

She do defeat us, for her life in Rome

Would be eternal to our triumph ...

(Act V, sc. 1)

... it is doubtful if Caesar's lieutenant, Proculeius, was expected to take her a load of pillows.

Shakespeare always spoke in the vein of the `Comfortable Words', which were a feature of the Communion Service of the Anglican prayer book from 1548 until 1980, and whose omission thereafter is perhaps the single most important reason for recent failures. …

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