Shakespeare’s Chair and the Polish Princess

Shakespeare's Chair

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: The Princes Czartoryski Museum, Kraców, Poland.

Description: This chair is part of the original collections of the Princes Czartoryski Museum (as of December 2016 part of the Polish National Museum). It is clearly an eighteenth-century chair. It has lion claws for feet, metal snakes for arms and is ornamented idiosyncratically and expensively on the seat back with a golden lyre. Above this, an inscription in Latin reads ‘William Shakespeare’s Chair.’ At first glance, this seems entirely unlikely; however, the back of the chair conceals a surprise. Open up a hinged door and within, reverently entombed in this outer shell, you find the remains of a much older chair. This is what is left of one of ‘Shakespeare’s chairs’. The story of how it travelled from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to Kraców describes in little Shakespeare’s import in the Europe of the 1790s as an exemplar both of Enlightenment ideals and Romantic habits of mind.

It was David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 that put Stratford on the map for tourists. The Birthplace was made into the centrepiece of the Shakespeare tourist cult for the first time and something of a tourist boom ensued. As Mrs Hart, then tenant of the Birthplace, said to the Hon. John Byng in 1781 while showing him ‘Shakespeare’s old chair’: ‘It has been carefully handed down by our family, but people never thought so much of it till after the Jubilee, and now see what pieces they have cut from it, as well as from the old flooring in the bedroom!’ (Fogg, p. 104). Taking the hint, John Byng seized his opportunity, and hastily acquired the bottom strut of the chair.

Shakespeare’s chair was shown in the kitchen of the Birthplace throughout the 1780s and 1790s. Samuel Ireland’s Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon (1795) included an engraving of ‘the kitchen of Shakespeare’s House’ which depicts this chair in situ. Something of the imaginative meaning of this chair may be gauged from John Ferrar’s A Tour from Dublin to London (1796). He and his friend were shown round the Birthplace by Mary Hornby who ‘shewed us [Shakespeare’s] pedigree in manuscript’ and then,

we had the supreme satisfaction of handling the old painting box and pencils of our immortal bard. We also got some of his mulberry tree, and his chair is preserved in the chimney corner. Henry sat down in it and received such inspiration, that we know not what will be the consequence, for he has been writing on every opportunity since (Ferrar, p. 38)

Ferrar’s waggish tone is echoed and amplified in the account provided by the American Washington Irving of his visit in 1815 when he took the tour in his turn:

The most favourite object of curiosity, however, is Shakespeare’s chair. It stands in the chimney nook of a small gloomy chamber…In this chair it is the custom of every one that visits the house to sit: whether this be done with the hope of imbibing any of the inspiration of the bard I am at a loss to say, I merely mention the fact; and mine hostess privately assured me, that, though built of solid oak, such was the fervent zeal of devotees, that the chair had to be new bottomed at least once in three years. It is worthy of notice also in the history of this extraordinary chair, that it partakes something of the volatile nature of the Santa Casa of Loretto, or the flying chair of the Arabian enchanter; for though sold some years since to a northern princess, yet, strange to tell, it has found its way back to the old chimney corner… (Irving, pp. 34-5).

The original chair was indeed long gone. In the summer of 1790, the Polish Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska née Flemming (1746-1835), aristocrat, patron, writer, landscape gardener, and art collector, showed up in Stratford as part of her tour through England and Scotland. She would write up her observations in her travel journal, now preserved in manuscript in the Princes Czartoryski Library in Kraców. She would also acquire various souvenirs, including what was left of ‘Shakespeare’s chair’ by the likes of John Byng and other enthusiasts, although she seems to have spared the legs which she apparently left as a concession to the sentimental or commercial distress of the daughter of Mary Hornby. Putting down the then extraordinary sum of £300, the Princess took the chair back to Poland, had it built it into this quasi-reliquary and installed it in her English-style landscape garden at Puławy, one of the most important intellectual and political meeting places of the period. Here it served as one of the treasures of a wide-ranging collection that would eventually become the first Polish museum.

Whether or not the Princess conceived the idea on her travels in Britain is unclear; the idea of making some sort of museum in Poland modelled on the British Museum had certainly been proposed as early as 1775 (Treasures, p.8). By 1795, after the erasure of Poland from the map of Europe, this Enlightenment dream had become impracticable. The two collections the Princess made in the 1790s were fundamentally Romantic in their dual sense of pathos and nation. The first gathered up memorabilia of Polish notables, including of the freedom fighter Taduesz Kościusko, displaying them in 1801 in ‘The Temple of Memory,’ a copy of the Temple of the Sibyl. This collection was ‘to support the free spirit in the time of bondage and promote the knowledge of history as a signpost for the nation’s liberation’ (Treasures, p.8). Shakespeare’s chair made up part of the collections of the Gothic House, opened in 1809. This second edifice was devoted to European events and figures of note, and here Shakespeare’s chair was shown along with, inter alia, branches from the site of Troy, a shard of rock from Stonehenge, bricks from the Bastille, a lock of Napoleon’s hair from St Helena, chairs that had belonged to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, Isaac Newton’s death mask, the supposed relics of Héloïse and Abelard, and Captain Cook’s cutlass (see manuscript catalogue of the original collection). An inscription on the key to the Gothic House (1810) identified the Princess with Dido who, fleeing Tyre, saved its treasures (Treasures, p. 17).

The princess’s intervention rethought an old, solid but otherwise unremarkable kitchen chair into a chair fit for a genius by captioning it with a lyre and a name. Then it relocated the chair to install Shakespeare as one of an European pantheon. Finally, it was reimagined as evocative of a ‘gothic’ past, as the foundation of national romanticism. Thus a chair that had begun by certifying Shakespeare as a locus for emergent romantic British nationalism in Stratford ended up the other side of Europe describing Shakespeare first as internationalist Enlightenment treasure, and then, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth went from being one of the larger European states to being partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1794, a fantasy-patron of the Romantic possibility of Polish nation-making. By 1801, after all, the Princess’ country home was in Russian territory, and so Shakespeare served to conjure Poland’s potential future as a nation.

Date: c. 1640s, with additions c. 1790s.

Creator: unknown

Subject: William Shakespeare, Izabela Dorota Czartoryska

Media rights: copyright Nicola Watson, permission for photography Princes Czartoryski Museum, Kraców

Object type: furniture

Format: wood and base metal

Language: Latin

Publisher: Princes Czartoryski Museum, Polish National Museum


Ferrar, John, A Tour from Dublin to London in 1795: through the Isle of Anglesea, Bangor, Conway … and Kensington (Dublin, 1796).

Fogg, Nicholas, Stratford-upon-Avon: The Biography (Stroud: Amberley, 2014).

Guide to the Memorabilia preserved in the Gothic House in Puƚawy (Warsaw, 1828)

Hodge, Nicholas, ‘What the sale of the Czartoryski collections says about Poland today’ Apollo Magazine, 27 Feb 2017

Ireland, Samuel, Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon (London, 1795).

Irving, Washington, ‘Stratford-upon-Avon’, from “The Sketchbook” of Washington Irving, with Notes and Original Illustrations, eds. Richard Savage and William Salt Brassington (Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Quiney Press, 1920) pp.34-35. Originally published as part of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon…, Seventh instalment, September 13 (1820).

Treasures: The Princes Czartoryski Collection (Muzeum Narodowe W Karkowie, 2017)