An empty chair in a piece of figurative artwork is often representative of the person who would sit in it, so they are, in a sense, a form of portraiture. In addition, a chair is a highly personal object. We form a strong sense of ownership to our items of furniture, and the chair implies rituals. For example, in the family home, each family member may be attached to their chair or sit in a specific spot at a particular time of day.

From the depictions of chairs, we can begin to ascertain a sense of the personality of their owners. This is because the chair acts as a stand-in for a person, characterising what would otherwise be an empty space but reminding us of the potential presence of a human. 

Cherryl Fountain At Home with Waggis Watercolour 90 x 55 cm £1,800

Cherryl Fountain’s At Home With Waggis depicts an empty chair, although the scene is far from absent from life, especially as Waggis the dog sits in the foreground. Fountain explains, ‘Waggis, the last dog my Gamekeeper father trained at the age of 89, is posing obediently for his portrait. The cushion, taxidermy pheasant and game still life on the wall reflect Waggis's (formerly known as Haggis) working career as a gundog. The watercolour depicts him at 16, enjoying his retirement.’ The cushion on the chair tells the viewer about Waggis’s life, and there is so much character and personality in the piece as a whole, reflected in the array of patterned fabrics, colourful ornaments and belongings. Although the work is devoid of human presence, it is far from being devoid of personality. 

Nia Mackeown The Sun Room Chair Oil 38 x 32 cm £395

A lone chair may, however, be representative of loneliness or solitude. It could suggest the owner of the chair lives a life without much companionship. But equally, the singular chair may not necessarily represent unwanted loneliness. Instead, the lonely chair could act as a calming respite after a chaotic day. The chair provides refuge and comfort and shows a commitment to spending time with ourselves. Nia Mackeown’s The Sun Room Chair is incredibly inviting. She writes about her piece: ‘This alla prima painting finds inspiration from the dappled light seen on the Persian rug and antique chair. I enjoyed the play of warm and cool tones within the sunroom and hoped to capture the inviting feeling of the empty armchair.’  How the light skims the edge of the seat calls to the viewer, and we feel compelled to occupy it.

Jason Line Interior with Lloyd Loom Chair Oil 38 x 33 cm £1,200

But a very different atmosphere is portrayed in Jason Line’s piece Interior with Lloyd Loom Chair. Although the chair is similarly pictured next to a window, the trace of presence is still visible. With the paper in the window and crease in the cushion, the overall light is much more gloomy. The grey undertones create a less inviting sense of loneliness and solitude, and our attention is drawn to the presence of absence. Rather than immediately wanting to occupy the lack, the absence is felt, creating a paradoxical portrait of absence. An empty chair can be used to symbolise grief. For example, in the musical Les Miserables, the song ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ reflects the lack of life or the life that once was, that no longer occupies the chairs. 

However, even in empty chairs, a greater sense of interaction can be felt in depicting multiple chairs at once. For example, in Susan Ryder’s Garden Chairs, her chairs are positioned next to one another to suggest companionship. The chairs, surrounded by the beautiful greenery and flowers, entice the viewer. You can imagine enjoying another’s company as you sit amongst the garden, either engaging in conversation or mutually absorbing your surroundings.

Susan Ryder RP NEAC Garden Chairs Oil 51 x 61 cm £2,100

Jason Line Chair Meeting Charcoal 74 x 94 cm £1,500

But this sense of companionship is not necessarily felt within depictions of multiple chairs. In Adam Stone’s painting Lobby, the sense of absence becomes the centre of attention for the viewer. From the collection of chairs, we may expect to feel a sense of companionship again or be able to imagine the array of conversations that have occurred in this space. Still, through the monochromatic palette, the heavy shadows and lack of signs of human life that could be hinted at through additional objects, the piece feels representative of evidence of long-absent occupants.

Adam Stone Lobby Oil 92 x 114 cm £2,900

Through the context provided in Stone’s description, we learn it is, in fact, an abandoned space; ‘The painting Lobby is of a room in the abandoned Merrion Hotel, Merrion Centre, Leeds. The room had been left untouched for several years after the operators went into liquidation. This work seeks to convey the absent presence experienced in the space. It forms part of a five-year investigation exploring sites of the uncanny within the Merrion Shopping Centre.’

While some of the New English Art Club’s pieces show multi-purpose chairs, others have particular functions. For example, in Rosie Clark’s piece Studio, she depicts the essential chairs to the working day. Drawn in a very technical style with architectural lines and visual guides that accurately portray perspective, the sense of seriousness and purpose is reflected.

Rosie Clark Studio Pencil 66 x 55 cm £525

We can also think more broadly about how we define a chair, as in Christopher Slater’s painting The Old Throne, he depicts a toilet, which is also, in a sense, a chair!

Christopher Slater The Old Throne Oil 50 x 30 cm £585

Lastly, we can think more creatively about chairs, such as in Mary Jackson’s painting Under The Trees, through which she creates an incredibly enticing setting, depicting hammocks hanging from the trees. The golden hues in the light create a warm and welcoming scene, and the viewer can use this painting as a form of escapism. We transport ourselves to a sunny riverside as we imagine ourselves precariously settling into a hanging hammock. So next time you see a depiction of an empty chair, perhaps sit with it for a while.

Mary Jackson NEAC Under the Trees Oil 56 x 71 cm £3,000

The New English Art Club Annual Exhibition runs from 25 June to 3 July 2021

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Written by Hannah Martin