Picture the scene. You (or more likely your servants) are waiting at your usual pick-up point for deliveries, in the yard of the old ‘Bull and Mouth’ inn near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a bitterly cold day in mid November 1792. The coach arrives (late) and there is still no delivery of that precious Shakespeare chair that you last saw in the thatched, over-populated hovel in a village near Stratford-upon-Avon a few months ago. You are beginning to doubt the credibility of that strange, local poet/wheelwright chap, Jordan, who promised you that he knew ‘just the carrier’ to send it down to you.
Peeved and chilled to bone you withdraw to your rooms and pen a swift letter of complaint…
Past Monday, in which you say – you have sent ye Chair etc. - & that it would be at Bull & Mouth as Wed. last. I have sent 4 times after them - & ye Wagon came again yesterday, but no tiding of ye parcel – there must have been some great mistake somewhere – which I beg of you to Enquire into & give me a line immediately’
You wait another five days. Still no delivery, so you write another note:
I beg ye favour of you once more to give me a line & let me know what I am to expect – as it is giving a great deal of trouble on all sides, & more perhaps that ye things are worth…’
Maybe this so-called ‘Shakespeare’s Courting Chair’ is not as genuine as you had thought? Had the impoverished Hathaway family duped you?
Another six days later and the armchair (together with a package of broken glass) finally arrives at the coaching inn.
A common tale of frustration and late delivery in 18th century England, but an experience still common in these days of online shopping – not that many of us have the chance to buy a chair thought to have belonged to Shakespeare!
When Samuel Ireland toured Warwickshire researching material for his travel guide Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon (published in 1795) he met a descendent of Shakespeare’s sister Joan Hart in Stratford, who told him of an armchair in the Hathaway family home in Shottery, and that had always been known ‘in his remembrance’ as ‘Shakespeare’s courting chair’. He added that it had been passed down from Shakespeare to his grand-daughter, Lady Elizabeth Barnard, and from her to the Hathaway family.
In order to ‘obtain the smallest trifle appertaining to our Shakespeare’ Ireland bought the armchair, together with a purse decorated with bugle beads, said to have been given by Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. He had also been anxious to buy an ancient bed from the cottage, presumably the tester bed known traditionally as the ‘Hathaway Bed’, but the old lady who lived there refused to sell it ‘at any price’ as she had slept in it since childhood.
When the chair finally arrived in London, Ireland gave it pride of place amongst his other curiosities, in his study in Norfolk Street.
Such confidence in the chair’s authenticity was not shared by Ireland’s son. The youthful William Henry had accompanied his father on his journey through Warwickshire, and was witness to his father’s obsession and willing gullibility to accept as authentic anything that was claimed to have Shakespeare connections. This observation and his desire to impress his father, later led to William Henry to concoct several audacious Shakespeare forgeries. It is possible that he added the carved 'WAS' (for 'William & Anne Shakespeare') to the panel back of the chair, between the two earlier engravings of the Shakespeare shield with a spear and falcon, visible in the photograph (left).
Thirteen years later, in his book ‘Confessions’, William Henry recalled his visit with his father to Shottery and the ‘old oak chair, wherein it was stated our bard was used to sit, during his courtship, with his Anne upon his knee’. He also commented, with the knowing scepticism of one who had fooled so many with his own notorious ‘Shakespeare manuscript’ forgeries, that the armchair in his father’s study was ‘perfectly well known to all the inspectors of the manuscripts; MANY of whom I have often seen seated therein to hear the perusal of the papers; and their settled physiognomies have frequently excited in me a desire for laughter which it has required every effort on my part to restrain.’
Fast forward to another cold November day, this time in 2002. As the Museum Curator I am sitting in the saleroom at Christies, waiting tensely to make a bid on behalf of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Victor Chinnery, the Trust’s early furniture consultant, has brought to my attention a 17th-century armchair that he believes may have links with the Shakespeare family. It has elements of the Shakespeare arms carved on the chair back. It is identical to the chair engraved and published by Samuel Ireland, right down to some small damage to the chair seat. But to most people in the saleroom it is a fairly unremarkable piece of 17th-century furniture.
We win the bid and ‘Shakespeare’s Courting Chair’ is returned to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, exactly 210 years after Ireland acquired it from the Hathaway family.