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Reading chair

Reading chair

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    1725-1735 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Mahogany, with leather upholstery

  • Museum number:

    W.13:1, 2-1970

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This chair was designed for sitting on backwards in order to read a book on the book-rest attached to the chair-back. It was probably made in the 1720s, but reading chairs continued to be popular for many years. In 1803 the designer Thomas Sheraton wrote in The Cabinet Dictionary that reading chairs 'are intended to make the exercise of reading easy, and for the convenience of taking down a note or quotation on any subject. The reader places himself with his back to the front of the chair and rests his arms on the top yoke.' The arms contain small drawers which swivel out, revealing compartments for writing tools.

The chair is raised on four turned legs which curve inwards from pad feet. The front legs are joined by a single carved and turned, in-curved stretcher. This is joined to the back legs by an ‘H’ form stretcher, which is largely turned but has rectangular blocks at the joints. The back legs are close together and joined by a short stretcher. Where the front stretcher joins the front legs it is round in section, whereas the back stretcher is joined by rectangular blocks.
The narrow rectangular back of the chair is fully upholstered and supports the curved and padded crest rail. The rounded ends of this are fitted with small swing-out drawers, which contain compartments designed to hold ink and other tools of writing. The centre back of the rail supports a hinged writing slope of mahogany, the shaped, hinged support of which can be rested on one of three pairs of notches, recessed in the back uprights, to adjust the angle of the sloped panel.
Construction of the back, crest rail and much of the seat is unknown because it is enclosed by leather upholstery. The seat frame, visible from underneath, is beech and about two inches deep and thick, cut into a curve on the outside edge and deeply chamfered on the inside edge to create the acute curves in the sides of the seat. The deep front seat rail is in two parts, joined by a large lap joint.
The drawer in the front seat rail is made of oak and supported by batons at the top of each side, which run on rebates cut on larger batons fixed to the inside of the seat rails. The drawer sides are inset into the curved front of the drawer and secured with a baton that runs across the top. The baton on the proper right side is nailed to the outside of the drawer side at the top, with headless nails bent over. On the proper left side, the top edge of the drawer side has come off and a new, wider baton has been nailed down onto the lowered top edge (a repair). The underside of the drawer is rebated into the sides and front but runs under at the back and is nailed up.
The upholstery foundation consists of three strips of webbing running side to side and two strips running front to back. Four of these strips have a single chevron with pale weft and dark warp but the narrowest side-to-side strip at the back is a plain-weave webbing which is possibly the only original one. The others may be replacements made any time between 1780 and 1820. On top of the webbing is a plain-weave linen base cloth with a stencil on it, which we can’t read. The leather is not original but it is of some age and could be late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Physical description

A mahogany reading chair with leather upholstery, designed to be used by a reader sitting astride the chair, facing towards its back. It has a narrow back and a wide, curved, crest rail, the ends of which are fitted with a small swing-out drawers. There is a hinged writing slope at the center back. The horseshoe-shaped seat is sharply indented at the back to accommodate the sitter’s legs and has a drawer in the front.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)


1725-1735 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Mahogany, with leather upholstery


Height: 89.5 cm with reading rest raised to highest natural angle (second notch), Width: 78 cm closed, Depth: 66 cm closed, Height: 81.5 cm closed, Height: 38.5 cm to top of seat rail, Width: 54 cm widest point of seat

Object history note

See also W.47-1948

Descriptive line

Reading chair with leather upholstery.


Mahogany; Leather




Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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