Showing posts with label Red dragon chair. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Red dragon chair. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Our Red Dragon

I drew a blank slate looking at the weight that was our Magpie prompt for this Tuesday, so instead I have gone out on my own. I have more than enough material around the house to write about and today I give you the Red Dragon Chair. It is 28 inches in height,, width and depth at its largest part, with only one barely visible point of assembly on the bottom it appears to be mostly one piece of carving.

I inherited this chair from my Uncle John R Irwin whose grandfather was a millionaire, made his fortune on railroad work and hauling iron ore on the Great Lakes in the late 1800’s in PA. Uncle John called this the Chinese Emperor’s chair so I assumed it was Chinese. I know it came from the Glen Irwin mansion in Clinton and although the exact date of purchase is unknown, I was told that they bought it on one of their many trips to England.

All the years this chair occupied the corner of my aunt and uncle's home I never remember anyone being brazen enough to sit in it, except Uncle John who would laugh at Virginia when she said, "John get out of that chair before you scratch it!"  This scolding would delight him into taunting, "too late I already did that when I was about 3 years old!" Uncle John is the only one I know who ever sat in it; and according to the story this was when he was a very little boy and his grandfather would proudly sit him in the Emperor's chair!  His royal red seat shows some two inches of wear of the lacquer across the front where Uncle John claims his feet would dangle and his shoes scuffed the chair seat. Otherwise this chair is in perfect condition. My aunt Virginia was a meticulous obsessive housekeeper who never tolerated  a speck of dust or a bit of dirt in her home. She not only dusted daily, once a week she used q-tips to give this chair the royal treatment it deserved, carefully going over each crevice. We have this chair in a corner in our formal living room where it is a conversation piece. So far no one has attempted to sit in it, but I discourage that by usually having something displayed on it. Over Christmas it provided backdrop to my hundreds of angels. I thought that was a good combo Angels and Dragons--- is that a game and where have we heard that? Oh is that dungeons and dragons, well perhaps I’m on to something here.

Uncle John came into our family by marrying my aunt when she was in her 30’s. They met at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory where they both worked in Creighton, PA. Aunt Jinx had a prospering career and expected to remain the old maid, living at home with her parents and providing for them in their old age. But then along came John who was a handsome cad, resembling Clark Gable and who always wore a shirt , tie and hat to go to town even if it was our town! Here is his WWII Army photo. They married to the consternation of my grandparents and for a short time all lived together in the house in Arnold that Virginia and her parents bought together. All was not well because John had a habit that the family could not accept, a love of alcohol. He just enjoyed his shots of whiskey and always had a bottle nearby. He was not a nasty or falling down drunk, nor one who could not function, but as I recall the more he drank the funnier he became! I thought Uncle John the funniest person I knew, always laughing, at least that’s the way I saw him and remember laughing so hard around him and his stories that I would get sick in the stomach. This annoyed my grandmother who disliked John’s “foolishness.” Well his own mother, the grand Mrs. Irwin, felt the same about her son and detested his drinking.

I have to suspect that his entertainment value might have been an attraction to my aunt Virginia because where there was John there was laughter, though later on she complained about his “carrying on” and would tell him to “shut up!” Aunt Virginia seldom spoke harshly so this was quite an utterance. My granpap had no use for John and called him “Chicken Head” among other names. John found this hysterically funny which aggravated my granpap more. I remember granpap swinging his cane at John which would bring more bursts of laughter. Looking back now I am surprised this did not agitate Pap to another stroke! At Granpap's funeral Uncle John had gone down the streeet to a tavern to "replenish", before they closed the casket, Uncle John spoke to  Granpap, "Pap, now there is no one around to call me chicken head no more!  But I will keep that name to honor your!"  He did too; every so often he would tell someone or his wife, "Don't you go messing with this old Chicken Head now!"  The conglomerate house was sold and they went their separate ways; my grandparents rented a small duplex up the hill and John and Virginia moved to Freeport where John became landscaper and groundskeeper in charge over the Irwin acres and had a free small house across the road from Mrs. Irwin’s home. On another Sepia Saturday I’ll relate more of my Aunt and Uncle’s history. They never had children and she was my favorite aunt, who died last year. Here they are in 1974, but I will have more of the family stories another time!

Uncle John told me when I was young  and would stand and admire the chair where he would allow me to place my dolls, “someday Patty when I am gone, I want you to have this red chair and the camel.” (The camel is another marvelous piece which is on our mantel.) He had determined this because I so admired the chair and he said, “Red is good luck!  It has been in the Irwin family since forever, I’d like to see all their faces when it is no longer part of the Irwin’s!” This was usually followed by his tale of “I’ll outlive them all!” And the truth was he did! John wasn’t treated kindly by the last surviving Irwin, his mother, Jessie who lived in the big house across the road. She often told John that she would leave him nothing in her will unless he would give up his drinking; she was a tea totaled and could not understand how my Aunt Virginia could put up with him!

I thought this red chair was one of the most magnificent things I had ever seen. I still feel that way about it as does Jerry. By the way red is considered good fengshui to have in the home! I prepared to become its owner by researching carefully for years, looking in every museum I visited. I never found anything like it. Arrival of the internet was not much more help but I carefully looked at websites and any auction with antique Chinese furniture.

Uncle John died in 1994 but I never asked my aunt for the chair. I would not have dreamt of doing so. She often reminded me that she was keeping it for me and it was to be with me ultimately. In 2004, we started our moved to our retirement home here in MN. That year we went to PA to spend Thanksgiving with my aunt Virginia and she had determined that we should take the red chair and camel and some other antiques home with us to MN. Besides she said she was tired dusting them. That same year an article appeared in the Sunday Parade magazine about the Johnny Cash estate and there was something very similar to our red chair, only in black. It was one of the estate items that were to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s and referred to as an ebonized, Chinese chair. Our red chair has dragons on the ends of the arms and the ebonized Cash chair had Fu Dogs. This is ironic in that Uncle John loved Johnny Cash because he had triumphed over addictions!  Uncle John enjoyed his music as we did, Jerry more than me because I'm not a real country western fan.  I smiled when I saw this article and thought about how Uncle John would have enjoyed this and added it to his repetoire. Maybe he had a hand in this from the beyond.

I continued my research by sending photos and letters off to Kovels and to the Antiques Roadshow. The only response from Kovels was an offer to buy some of their books! I did not renew my subscription to their magazine. Finally in 2005 I hit pay dirt! A Canadian appraiser from the Antiques Road Show online, accepted many photos and advised me that the chair and its history were almost correct. However he was certain that “…it is in fact Japanese, not Chinese and dates from the late 1800’s. This type of exotic furniture was very popular in the UK and the USA at that time and it was made specifically for those markets.” The appraised value was higher than we expected. So it occupies its corner here, evoking admiration of all. A local friend who is an antiques buff admits to never having seen the likes of the Red Dragon Chair. I continue to look in museums, in my antique magazines, and on line and have not yet found anything else like it. My cousin who helped Jerry load this in to the trailer for our transport to MN said he expects to see us on Antiques Road show! A magnificent chair. I have assembled a huge red scrapbook, about the wealthy Irwins, Uncle John, the mansions. We keep the book beside the chair so visitors can learn about the Irwins, the chair, and other antiques we have in our home.