Kirkwall, 4 October 1936
Annie, William, Maggie, Thomas, David
The following article appeared in The Orcadian on 10 January 2013:-
From the crofthouse to drawing-rooms across the world
The new furniture gallery in London's Victoria and Albert Museum has been getting a lot of media attention and an article in the New York Times on 9 December 2012 drew particular attention to one of the featured furniture makers. The writer mentioned an ancient Egyptian throne and an ornate cabinet that had belonged to the satirist Jonathan Swift but suggested one of the most intriguing treasures is "a simple wooden and straw chair with rather humbler origins" made by "David Kirkness, an unusually skilful and enterprising joiner working on the remote Orkney Islands".
David Munro Kirkness moved to Kirkwall from his native Westray to serve his apprenticeship as a joiner with John P Peace. He and his brother William set up in business as joiners and undertakers about 1880, then in 1888 William left the business and David began to trade as DM Kirkness and introduced the sideline that was to make the name famous.
He is credited with realising there could be a market for the 'strae-backed steul' of his childhood, if it could be refined for the drawing-room, but it is an interesting question as to how the idea developed. His first order, from Miss Maud Balfour of Berstane House, to be delivered to Lady Sinclair, Bara House, Caithness, came just a few months before the meeting in Inverness that established the Northern Counties branch of the Scottish Home Industries Association.
The Association had been founded by the Countess of Rosebery "to provide a market for, and to improve and develop such Scottish Home Industries, Arts and Manufactures, as can be carried on by people in their own homes". In an 1895 book about the association, Lewis Munro wrote, "It had long been felt by many that not only was it desirable to foster these home industries of themselves but that, judiciously carried out, there was a considerable margin of profit to be made". Their plan was, "To go direct to the producers, to pay them as high a price as the market would afford, and to add for the selling price only so much, for management on an economical scale, as would pay the expenses of bringing the goods to market."
Some of those attending the meeting were already applying the ideas of the Association and perhaps Maud Balfour was one. In the first two years of the business, Kirkness only sold eight chairs and three of them were to her. Then, in November 1889, he sold a chair to Sheriff Thoms, famous in Orkney for his bequest for the renovation of St Magnus Cathedral, and this is when it all really began.
Sheriff Thoms wrote to David Kirkness on 29 March 1890, "You supplied me with a straw chair in end of November. I wish you to get made & send up another of smaller size as I propose to send both to the Exhibition to open here in beginning of May to see if it can do good to the industry. The Local Industries of Scotland are to have a stall…You will of course send the account to me." The Exhibition was the last of a series of biennial exhibitions in Edinburgh and Glasgow and was an 'International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry'.
Eight days later Sheriff Thoms dashed off another letter, "I had your mem of 15th as to your sending a straw backed chair with drawer under seat. I never ordered such & it will be returned to you if possible by tomorrow's steamer. A drawer under the seat gives it altogether the appearance of a night stool & makes it inappropriate as a drawing room chair. Your photograph by which I ordered the chair shews no such drawer. You will never get customers at the Exhibition for your night stools. I wished to advertise this as an Orkney Native Industry and if you can send me a chair of the smallest size according to the photograph without a drawer underneath immediately it may be in time for the exhibition still."
The next letter from Sheriff Thoms, on 14 June, shows that the suitable chair had arrived in time. He wrote to congratulate Kirkness on "making a hit" with the Orkney chairs.
""Liberty" the great art furniture man Regent Street London has taken them up & you must make hay (in this case chairs) while the sun shines, that is while the London season lasts."
Thoms was so keen that this "rare piece of good fortune" should be exploited to the full that he had told Miss Glendinning, who was in charge of the stall, that if Kirkness couldn't supply all the orders, she should apply to the next stall - the Zetland & Fair Isle Workers. In fact he suggested to David Kirkness that he should run up to Lerwick by steamer and arrange for assistance himself. To the Sheriff's annoyance, Kirkness didn't act on this suggestion but he still managed to sell thirty-three chairs before the end of the year, including four to Liberty.
In the first eleven years, covered by the order book owned by Reynold Eunson's daughter, Maria Morris, Liberty ordered almost five hundred chairs and another thousand went all over the country, often to very smart addresses in Mayfair, Kensington and Edinburgh New Town and to several castles, including Kellie and Moniack. The Countess of Rosebery had two chairs, as did quite a few other members of the aristocracy.
According to David Kirkness's obituary in the Orcadian, the Royal Family weren't short of chairs either but didn't generally have to buy them.
"They were presented to, among other notable persons, Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles. Her Royal Highness's wedding gift from the County of Orkney consisted of two hooded chairs. The Duke of York and the Duke of Kent also received Orkney chairs as wedding gifts, these being presented by the County and by the Burgh of Stromness respectively.
In 1897 several Orkney ladies subscribed to a gift to Queen Alexandra. They suggested, and Her Majesty consented to accept, an Orkney chair. The frame was made from oak taken from the rafters of the cathedral."
This startling detail is explained in the order book. "Made from oak couples used in the extension of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall Orkney by Bishop Reid between the year 1540 and 1558 and removed when the roofs were repaired in 1889."
The Orcadian went on, "Several chairs, in later years, were specially made for King Edward VII and for Queen Mary, before her coronation. Widely distributed photographs of Queen Mary and her children have featured Orkney chairs. A tribute to Mr Kirkness's products was observable in the fact that these chairs had apparently not been treated merely as ornaments."
Many of the orders from those who bought their own came through the Scottish Home Industries Association, who had followed up their stall at the Exhibition with a shop in Hanover Street, Edinburgh. A few of the orders in the first book even went abroad and in the order book in the Orkney archives, covering the years 1909 to 1913, Orkney chairs are travelling the world: Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Pretoria, Winnipeg, Australia and New Zealand.
Up until the Edinburgh exhibition, all the chair backs were made by John Coupland in Kirkwall. As things got busier, backs were supplied by Robert Foubister, Nessie, Tankerness; Oliver Foulis, Broughton, Westray; J Reid, Stronsay; William Taylor, St Mary's, and James Firth, Holm. Robert Foubister and James Firth are still on a list of the outworkers in 1905 but of the twenty-one other names, only three don't have addresses in Papa Westray, the home island of David Kirkness's wife Isabella.
Kirkness made four styles of chair: Hooded, Gentleman's, Lady's and Child's and they could have a wooden or rush seat and a drawer but the customer had another choice as well - what colour the wood was. For six shillings less, the chair could be made of white deal instead of fumed and oiled oak and the wood could be stained or painted. Of the first fifty chairs, seven were red, five were green, two were grey-blue and one was black. Most of these fell out of favour quickly but various shades of green, particularly bronze green, were still being ordered in 1913. The chairs that went to Liberty were sent unpainted.
Prices began in 1890 at 12 shillings for a small chair and 17/6 for a mid-sized one. A 1908 price-list for the Home Industries Association quotes £1.10.6 for a mid-sized oak chair with a rush seat; a wooden seat was six shillings less and a drawer cost five shillings more.
David Kirkness's obituary credits him with selling 14,000 chairs which sounds hardly credible but the order books show him selling nearly 400 chairs a year and he kept working into his eighties.
In a radio series, Isles of the Island, broadcast in 1934, SPB Mais said, "I had noticed in the Cathedral churchyard how long-lived the Orcadians are; and no wonder, in view of the absence of bustle, the temperate climate, the instinct to work, and their imperturbable good humour. But I now met a whole succession of octogenarians. The first was Mr. Kirkness, who makes straw-backed Orcadian chairs which are not only a delight to the eye but a rare comfort to the back."
David Kirkness died in 1936, just a few weeks after his retirement, but the Orcadian assured its readers that the business would be continued by Mr Kirkness's friend and long service employee William Price. In fact it seems that another employee, William Hay, kept the DM Kirkness name alive. According to the Kirkwall Valuation Roll, he rented the workshop on Palace Road from David Kirkness's son William until 1942 and then bought the premises. He carried on the joinery and undertaking business into the 1950s but the chair-making was stopped by World War II.
That might have been the end of the story, if the Orkney County Council hadn't wanted to give the Royal Family another chair to add to its collection. In 1956 they approached Reynold Eunson, who had just bought the business from William Hay, to ask if he could provide a chair for the Queen Mother. The two men did just that, with Thomas Groat of Kirbister, Longhope, who came from Quoys in Papa Westray, providing the straw back.
William Hay then came out of retirement to help Reynold re-introduce the making of Orkney Chairs to the joinery workshop on Palace Road. The business flourished again and now, very nearly 125 years after that first order, a new generation of young Orkney craftsmen are still finding a steady demand for our unique 'strae-backed steul."