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19 Feb 2020

Gossiping at Kellie

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Curator Edinburgh and East
Wooden chair with padded seat and short legs. The back of the chair is elaborately carved.
‘Gossip chair’ made by William Wheeler
Known in Fife as ‘gossip chairs’, these small seats were a favourite with the architect Robert Lorimer. This example from the 1890s was gifted to Kellie Castle in January 2020.

Robert Lorimer was 14 when his family first spent a summer at Kellie. He watched the carpenters and plasterers work for years on the castle’s ruined floors and ceilings. This chair is a product of that time and it’s likely Robert gave it to his nephew Patrick.

As well as being a renowned architect, Robert was also a designer – sketching furniture, ironwork, sculpture and textile designs, and then employing trusted artisans to make the final product. One such maker was East Neuk woodworker, William Wheeler, who had reputedly taught a young Robert how to make chairs while he was on holiday with his parents at Kellie Castle.

Small wooden chair with splayed legs. The back has 7 vertical struts.
An early chair designed by Robert Lorimer and made at Wheeler’s workshop in Arncroach (on loan from a private collection)

Wheeler had a workshop in the neighbouring village of Arncroach and is believed to have been the first person to have made a so-called ‘gossip chair’. The story goes that the laird of the nearby Balcaskie estate’s sister-in-law, Eva Anstruther, sent a Chippendale-style dining chair to Wheeler’s workshop for repair. When she was discussing this job with Mr Wheeler, Eva also asked if it would be possible to make a chair of the same design, but on a much smaller scale, so she could use it by the fireside. Wheeler obliged and produced a little version of the larger dining chair, which she called a gossip chair because its size made it easy to lean in to conversations.

Wheeler went on to produce these small chairs for local clients who wanted a fireside chair to sit next to a friend in a larger armchair, lean in and say ‘you’ll never guess what I heard ...’

Robert started a tradition of giving these chairs to children on their christenings or to couples on their wedding day. He also started designing his own, playing with the designs of the back splats and the chair covers.

Wooden chair with padded seat, short legs and an open carved back.
A Robert Lorimer gossip chair with a seat cover embroidered with a designed landscape (National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle)

One of Robert’s sisters, Janet Alice Lorimer, came to Kellie in 1890 with her children, and we believe that this chair was made for her son, Patrick Chalmers.

Painting of a woman and child.
Janet Alice Lorimer with child by John Henry Lorimer, 1890

The chair was then handed down from Patrick to his daughter Rosemary and, in turn, to her daughter Anne. The chair has been gifted to Kellie Castle in memory of Rosemary Anne Mathine Chalmers.

The top half of the back of an elaborately carved wooden chair.
Close-up of chair back

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