Archive of the month: Laurence Sterne's chair
The College is very lucky to be able to count Laurence Sterne, one of the most famous authors of the 18th century, amongst its alumni.
Although personal paper collections of many well known alumni have been deposited in the College Archives, unfortunately we don’t have many documents relating specifically to Sterne, those that survive being held by the British Library, the National Records of Scotland and archive services in Yorkshire. However, the College is fortunate enough to have a chair, formerly owned by Sterne, in its historic collections.
An entry in the College’s conclusion book dated 30th April 1928 reads “Agreed also to purchase from Mr. B. W. Batchelor for £50 a chair which once belonged to Laurence Sterne and stood in his study in Coxwold Vicarage, Yorkshire”. This entry followed correspondence on 9th March 1928 between Percy Gardner-Smith, Fellow of the College, and Edward Welbourne, a Fellow at Emmanuel and later Master there from 1951 to 1964, relating to the sale of the chair to the College. Welbourne describes how the then owner of the chair was a Mr. Basil W. Batchelor who had been an undergraduate contemporary with Welbourne at Emmanuel and that he had asked Welbourne to store it for him while he was travelling in India.
At that point, the chair was in the house of Batchelor’s Aunt, Miss A. Hicks, who lived at 7 Highgate Avenue, Highgate and appears to have been, at one point, in Shandy Hall, once the vicarage in Coxwold, where Sterne lived whilst serving as the vicar in the North Yorkshire parish. Shandy Hall was a nickname given to the vicarage by some of Sterne’s friends following the success of his work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (published 1759 - 1767).
Following a request by Welbourne, Batchelor’s uncle, Andrew Scott, wrote down his recollections relating to the chair’s history in a separate note dated 10th September 1926. In it he details the history of the chair, recalling that Batchelor’s mother came to own it as her father, the Rev. George Scott, was vicar in Coxwold (from 1843 to 1898). He in turn had come into possession of the chair from Thomas Newton, his predecessor, and then again in turn he inherited from his father, also Thomas Newton, who had been Sterne’s successor. Apparently Sterne had given Thomas Newton senior all his study furniture, which included this chair.
A reference on the Laurence Sterne Trust website shows that in the collections at Shandy Hall is a writing desk, also reputedly once owned by Sterne, so it is, perhaps, possible that both the desk and the chair were used together by Sterne in his study. It is not clear where the chair was first placed when acquired by the College, although as the letters relating to it were found with other correspondence relating to refurbishment works in the SCR in the 1920s , it is possible that it was initially put there.
The information in the letters is, of course, anecdotal rather than necessarily proof of provenance, however physical evidence found in the chair might potentially add further to the credibility of the history outlined in the letters. Firstly, stylistically the chair appears to be of the right period to have belonged to Sterne, who died in 1768. Secondly, it was discovered following some recent restoration work, that structurally the chair had been repaired numerous times during its lifetime. Although aesthetically pleasing, it is hard to imagine why, unless the chair had some other importance associated with it (in this case the connection to Sterne), it would not just be disposed of and replaced rather than be repeatedly repaired in an attempt to preserve what has clearly considered to be an important object over a two hundred and fifty year period. This physical evidence in the chair's structure does, perhaps, give some credibility to the suggested provenance. And although most likely added to the chair on its purchase by the College, a small brass plaque on the back of the chair reads ‘Hic sedebat Laurentius Sterne’ which can be roughly translated as 'Here sat Laurence Sterne'.