Sir Walter Scott’s Elbow Chair: The Seat of Power

Black and white engraving of Scott's chair, with shoes in the foreground and a cane leaning against the chair

Contributor: Kirsty Archer-Thompson F.S.A. Scot

Location: Abbotsford, Melrose, Scotland

Description: This item is a mahogany-framed elbow chair with a sloping scooped back, of the type often found in late-Georgian libraries. The seat itself has always been assumed to be real leather, but in fact it may be a very early example of imitation leather, made of layers of pulped paper coated with preservative. The seat is deep, even for a man of some stature, and it is a curiously relaxed choice to combine with the versatile architect’s desk that Walter Scott commissioned from Gillows of Lancaster in 1810. One cannot help but see a seating position more conducive to thinking or reading rather than hours spent at ‘the task’ of writing voluminous histories and novels. Although a plain piece of furniture overall, the chair has some reeded detail on the front of the frame and down the tapered legs. Evidence of a sparsely buttoned back survive in a series of small pin holes and clumps of threads, with none of the true buttons now remaining. The seat is heavily worn and the whole piece exudes an aura of robust rusticity. The maker of the chair and the exact time of its purchase is unknown, although it is likely to have been purchased from William Trotter of Edinburgh. The piece was certainly in position in Scott’s Study at Abbotsford by 1826 and may have been relocated to the property, alongside the desk, after the sale of the family’s Edinburgh home following the financial crash of 1825-6.

Almost as soon as the interior of Scott’s Abbotsford Study was finished in 1825, there was an intense interest in the space as the place from which his stories emanated, and this enthusiasm naturally settled most enthusiastically on his desk and chair as a kind of secular altar. As early as 1826, in The Border Tourist, we find the author making himself comfortable in Scott’s elbow chair where he tells us the writer is still “accustomed to sit.” Musing whilst surveying the writing paraphernalia surrounding him, he declares that future generations will “look on with an interest approaching adoration.” This was prophetic of one aspect of Scott’s transition into a cult figure of the Romantic movements across Europe and beyond.

The resonance of Scott’s chair to this story of emerging cult status is wonderfully illustrated by a commemorative theatre show that circulated in the months following the author’s death in September 1832, both in Britain and in North America. In Thomas Barry’s Masque and Pageant in Honour of the Minstrel of the North, theatre-goers were treated to the Abbotsford Study reimagined as a stage set (clearly this was a space they were expected to recognise). The set was complete with representations of Scott’s writing desk and his ‘vacant’ chair. An unstrung harp is included for its symbolic effect. Like the ‘Border Tourist’, a character known as the Bard actively engages with Scott’s chair in the opening scene and settles down into its enveloping form. Just like the poet Thomas the Rhymer in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3), he falls into a deep slumber after declaring sleepily for the benefit of the audience: “yon chair doth woo me.” Here the chair acts as a magical portal, transporting the protagonist and the viewers to a temple, where the Genii of the continents offer their eulogies to the dead Author. Crushing this mournful note, the figure of Immortality then appears to reassure both cast and spectators that Scott will live forever, courtesy of “the creations of his pen.” This paves the way for the pageant proper; a series of vignettes from his most popular poems and novels.

The concept of the chair as a portal to Scott’s imagination, and the idea that this might be a power others could harness, seems to have created an anxiety and determination to physically engage with the object. In a string of early tourist accounts from the 1830s-50s, the elbow chair is determined to be ‘comfortable’ by those that managed to try it out. The writer George Eliot described it in sensory terms as ‘delicious.’

In the 1840s, the lavish Abbotsford Editions of Scott’s complete works were published, complete with almost two thousand engraved illustrations. One of the very first images is William Dickes’ sketch of Scott’s chair, complete with his last set of clothes. The position of the chair itself is interesting. Angled jauntily and strewn with items of outdoor clothing that suggest interaction and dynamism, the inference is that Scott’s physical absence is temporary. The pan-European fascination with the chair can be seen in an 1860 engraving of a visit to Abbotsford by the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III of France. Here, the royal entourage stand in front of the desk, almost eclipsing it entirely, intently focussed upon the chair which has been rolled into the centre of the room for ease of viewing. Much like the Masque of 1832, the eye is directed to the empty seat and its complex symbolism as a place of creativity, memory and legacy. The fact that the elbow chair later circulated as a portable relic in collectable china miniatures and featured in a plethora of early postcards and photographs, reinforces its specific appeal as a place of creative genesis.

Interaction from visitors had clearly begun to take its toll on the piece very early in its afterlife, as Charles Dickens reminisced about his visit in 1841:

“I desired to sit in the great novelist’s chair; but the attendant…politely but very firmly refused permission, on the ground that she had been expressly forbidden to grant the privilege to anybody. “The chair”, she said, “would soon be worn out, if every one who came here was allowed to sit in it.” I respected her orders but I sat in the chair nevertheless…at the request of the owner of Abbotsford.”

Through this peculiarly physical relationship with a string of literary greats that followed in Scott’s footsteps, the chair has only accrued more Romantic capital as a seat of the imagination, one of few such sites in time and space where the stories of famous writers converge.

Date: 1815-1825

Subject: Sir Walter Scott

Object type: furniture

Format: Mahogany and leather

Publisher: The Faculty of Advocates Abbotsford Collection Trust

Catalogue: number T.AD.0094

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