An upholstered mahogany reading chair, designed to be used by a reader sitting astride the chair, facing towards its back. The horseshoe-shaped seat is indented at the back to accommodate the sitter’s legs. It has a narrow back with Gothic style splats and a wide, curved, crest rail. With an adjustable reading or writing slope attached to the back, flanked by restored brass candle-arms, below this, is a pull-out writing equipage drawer. With two front fluted turned tapering legs; the two rear legs being sabre legs – tapered and outswept in shape. Raised on castors.
In ‘The Dictionary of English Furniture: Volume One’, Ralph Edwards discusses library and reading chairs, commenting that: ‘Early in the eighteenth century a specialised form of chair for use in libraries was introduced, padded and generally covered with leather. They were made in walnut and mahogany.’ ((Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1983), p.317).
Ackermann, in his celebrated journal ‘The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics’, published from 1809 until 1828, describes and illustrates a pair of ‘Library Reading Chairs’ (‘Ackermann’s Regency Furniture & Interiors’, Text by Pauline Agius, Intro by Stephen Jones (The Crowood Press, 1984), p.54, Plate 19). The design of the chair on the right hand side bears striking similarities to our chair – with castors, the pull-out writing equipage drawer, the adjustable writing slope, the candle arms and similar seat and leg design.
Ackermann describes this pair of chairs as: ‘two of the most convenient and comfortable library chairs perhaps ever completed. Each of them has become a favourite piece of furniture for the library, boudoir, and other apartments of the nobility and gentry.’ He describes the second chair as: ‘a more novel article, but equally convenient and pleasant [as the chair on the left]: gentlemen either sit across, with the face towards the desk, contrived for reading, writing, &c. and which, by a rising rack, can be elevated at pleasure; or, when its occupier is tired of the first position, it is with the greatest ease turned round in a brass grove, to either side or the other; in which case the gentleman site sideways. The circling arms in either way form a pleasant easy back, and also, in every direction, supports for the arms. As a proof of their real comfort and convenience, they are now in great sale at the ware-rooms of the inventors, Messrs. Morgan and Saunders, Catherine-street, Strand’ (ibid, p.54).
Lindsay Boynton, in her book ‘Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800’ (The Bloomfield Press, London, 1995), illustrates a design by the Gillow Company for a reading chair, dated 1794 (fig. 246). Boynton comments that this design was a late example of a type which went back to the 1740s in the Gillows records (ibid, p.26).
In 1803, Thomas Sheraton describes an ‘Arm-chair for a library, or a reading chair’ in his ‘The Cabinet Dictionary’. He explains that: ‘[t]hese are intended to make the exercise [of reading] easy, and for the convenience of taking down a note or quotation from any subject. The reader places himself with his back to the front of the chair, and rests his arms on the top yoke. The desk is moveable to any point in the circumference of the yoke or top rail, by means of a groove cut in the wood, and plates of iron screwed on.’ As can be seen on our chair, he suggests that a ‘long and narrow drawer for ink and pens’ can be fitted to the underside of this moveable piece. Sheraton describes the construction of the chair and the dimensions of the chair and its associated parts, and includes a drawing of the design, which was published in 11 October 1802, in plate 5 (Charles F. Montgomery (ed), ‘Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet Dictionary: Volume I Abacus – Drawer’ (Praeger Publishers, 1970), pp.17-8, and plate 5).
In his book ‘Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840’, Christopher Gilbert illustrates two mahogany Reading Chairs which bear a number of similarities to our chair, both having two front turned tapering legs – although reeded rather than fluted; two rear sabre legs; both raised on castors and with Gothic style splats. The first is by William Priest, dated circa 1820 and stamped with his Tudor Street address (Christopher Gilbert, ‘Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840’ (Furniture History Society, W.S. Maney and Son Ltd, 1996), fig.743, p.379). This reading chair has three Gothic style splats and, as with our chair the underarm supports are not pierced. It also has a pull-out writing equipage drawer below the writing slope, but on the right rather than the left hand side.
The second mahogany reading chair which Christopher Gilbert illustrates in his ‘Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840’ is one of a pair which was sold at Christie’s ‘Fine English Furniture’ sale on 11th April 1991, Lot 54. The chairs are attributed to Morgan and Saunders and stamped ‘T. WILLSON 68 GREAT QUEEN STREET LONDON’ on the back leg. Thomas Willson were furniture-brokers.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has two mahogany reading chairs, both upholstered in leather, in their collection. Both chairs are dated 1725-35 (Museum numbers: W.13:1, 2-1970 and W.47:1-1948).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an English Reading Chair in its collection, dated c.1750. This chair is made from walnut, oak and beechwood; Accession Number: 68.164.
There is also an English Reading Chair in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Made from turned and joined walnut, leather, brass and tin, it was acquired in 1960. The Cooper Hewitt website comments that: ‘Much like cricket fighting, cockfighting is a blood sport between two gamecocks held in a ring. While this chair was intended as a specific piece of furniture dedicated to reading, it also became known as a cockfight chair, likely due to its capability for the user to safely sit with the padded back shielding them from the violence of the fight.’; 1960-164-16-a/c.
Adam Bowett illustrates a reading/writing chair, dated circa 1725-40 in ‘100 British Chairs’ (Antique Collectors’ Club, 2015), p.59, fig.37. The chair has an adjustable reaing/writing slope attached to the back. This chair has a swivelling pen drawer fitted to one arm, and a brass candle holder attached to the other.
Morgan & Sanders: Morgan & Sanders were upholsterers and cabinet makers with premises at Trafalgar House, 16-17 Catherine Street, near the Strand, who were in business between c.1801-1820. There is much information about the business of Morgan & Sanders because of their involvement with Rudolph Ackermann, who was a print seller, art dealer and publisher of the monthly periodical ‘The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics’, for which Morgan & Sanders supplied a succession of furniture designs which were published between 1809 and 1815. The firm actively promoted their patent furniture through advertisements in the press (Ambrose Heal, ‘The London Furniture Makers from the Restoration to the Victorian era 1660-1840’ (B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1953), plate on page 115). For more information see the British and Irish Furniture Makers Online section on Morgan & Sanders; https://bifmo.data.history.ac.uk/entry/morgan-sanders-1801-20.