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.

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