Best in show | The Juan Nan (Watterson) Family Armchair, c.1700
“If you walked past this object without knowing something about its history, you’d think it was just another old broken chair. But this piece of furniture, which sat by the fireside in an Isle of Man cottage for more than 200 years, has a remarkable past.
Its maker, Juan Watterson, was a Manx everyman of the 18th century who did a little crofting, fishing and farming. Rather than using traditional joinery skills, he used shipbuilding tools to create the chair’s rather unusual form from wood that he probably found on the beach.
Like a lot of furniture of a similar age, the chair displays considerable human activity with groove marks on the arms and footplate. Various bits have been replaced over time, which means it has a really special feel.
It also has woodworm and has been coloured by fire, which gives it a marvellous smell, but it is uniquely Manx in heritage, shape and pattern and is incredibly rare. Most chairs made on the island were built by joiners in a northern English style.
In the late 1700s, John Wesley – the father of Methodism – came to the island to spread his message. He was known to stand on chairs when addressing groups of people and Watterson family history says he talked to the folk of the parish while standing on this very chair in the garden of the family’s cottage.
The chair was donated by the family at a time when the museum – which is celebrating its 100th anniversary – was looking to record and preserve the history of the Manx people.
This went against the grain, somewhat, as museums across the UK were busy amassing objects from around the world – taxidermy giraffes, Egyptian mummies and so on – to show local people what the world looked like.
Instead, the Manx Museum had a remit to collect the ‘old ways’ in order to stop the island story being lost as it faced being homogenised into another generic English region.
Historians and folklorists were sent into the community to record dialects, languages and songs, memories, superstitions and objects such as spinning wheels and hedging spades to create a collection that celebrated the island’s culture and identity. All this was happening, however, at a time when there was a huge disregard for our own heritage; even the Manx government believed there was nothing of cultural significance to fill a small room, let alone a museum.
Luckily, those pioneers persevered and we now have, for example, a wonderful collection of 1,000-year-old medieval Scandinavian crosses bearing pagan artwork on one side and crucifixes on the other to show how the Norse people settled here and converted to Christianity.
Many priceless artefacts were found being used as gateposts or broken up to fill in potholes in the road while a Viking treasure hoard had to be rescued from a tip to be sent to the British Museum for evaluation.”
Interview by John Holt. Museum 100 is at the Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man, until October