Shakespeare’s Chair

I have a thing about chairs, and it’s bad. Chairs, with their neatly upholstered beauty have a near-mystical appeal to me, they pull me in, mesmerise me, and bring me inexplicable joy.
I am unable to walk past an exquisitely made chair without a gasp of admiration and a pang of yearning.
My husband tried to appeal to my common sense, soon realised that trait was missing from my personality, and has now long conceded defeat and accepted that he had unwittingly signed up to a love me love my chairs kind of marriage.
Whenever one of my children tries to accurately describe an absurd situation devoid of reason or logic, they might simply say, you know it is just like mummy and her chairs.

Are you one of those people who harbour hopes for happy afterlife? Personally, I am quietly confident I have already secured my place in Hell on the strength of you shall not covet your neighbour’s chair directive alone, and I can just picture myself shifting uncomfortably from side to side on a grey plastic chair for Eternity.

Bar the most heinous crimes against chair craftsmanship, I am surprisingly egalitarian in my tastes, whereby I devote equal amount of enthusiasm to antique shops and builders’ skips, and am as likely to lose sleep over a wooden farmhouse simplicity, as over Versailles opulence in gold and silk.

So far, my personal best chair hoarding record stands at 20 chairs scattered around the house as well as 36 chairs stacked up in the garage, which is not that many when you put things into perspective.

Years ago, once we already have all the functionally necessary chairs in the house, including the staple of 6 dining table chairs, one chair at everybody’s desk, a clothes chair in each bedroom and a few decorative chairs in the living room, I drafted a Chair Rule Book, which states that any additional chairs should be obtained free of charge if at all possible. This rule does not encourage me to use violence, deception or bribery, it simply limits my hunting grounds to websites offering unwanted goods for free and local reuse and recycle centres commonly known as dumps. Either way I have vowed not to part with money in exchange for supplementary chairs, and I mostly manage to stick to this rule.

Sources of free chairs in South East London are limited, and when they do become available, they usually come in sets of 4, as and when their previous owners decide to update the décor. This means that my 36 chairs in the garage were the result of mere nine offers I nabbed on Freecycle, so let’s not read too much into that figure.

My perfect chair has many faces, but it is leaning towards strongly traditional, Georgian mahogany or Tudor oak, conservative upholstery, preferably dark greens, cream and burgundy, but I am happy to keep an open mind on the colour scheme. I am also partial towards a classic farmhouse spindle back with a subtly arched curvature.

I like mixing, swapping, replacing and re-arranging my chairs regularly. I aim for eclectic rather than matching sets. At the same time I have developed a strong bond with some of them and find myself unable to pass them on, to make room for new ones. This attachment is not dissimilar to people who keep pigs because they like bacon and then cannot bring themselves to eat them, because the pigs become family and you do not eat family, no matter how much you love bacon. My best chairs have become family, too. They sit in my study so I can keep a close eye on them.

So there, I love chairs.

Another thing I love is writing. Most days I either write, or think about writing, or look out for things  and words I can store and write about later, and if I haven’t written anything for a while, I use strong words with myself, and they are not words of self-love.

Last weekend we made a family pilgrimage to Stratford-Upon-Avon. My teenage daughters have never been, so it was time.  I was acting all cool and casual, but I was sneaking in my personal secret agenda. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to dab in a bit of amateur hocus-pocus, and plead with the Bard to guide my older daughter’s hand in her upcoming English GCSE exams.  I am available for parenting advice on other subjects too.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is tucked away a mile away from Stratford town centre. It has a thatched roof, a flower garden, a vegetable patch and a haphazard apple and pear orchard.

A Mind Your Head front door took us to a small anteroom where we were greeted by a friendly Shakespeare Birthplace Trust staff member. He made obligatory small talk, mentioned Anne Hathaway the actress, and pointed us in the direction of a mostly dark kitchen, the only faint light provided by a couple of permanent candles. We were invited to look up the chimney, took photos of a pair of pheasants hanging dramatically by the neck from a peg on the wall. We walked up the winding wooden staircase onto the first floor, went through a couple of bedrooms, with their red velvet draped four poster beds, tiny cradles, dark oak chests and antique silver candle holders.

The third room was where I found it.  I entered unsuspectingly, bending my head as I did.

Once you’ve been walking around 500 years old houses for a while, you adjust your pace to the rhythm of the place, you move pensively from room to room, you dive into centuries of history, you breathe it all in. The outside world stops and waits whilst you drag your feet, slowly, silently. By the time I strolled quietly towards a carved wooden chair by a small window I was fully entranced, lost in the moment. There was an open book and a lantern on the chair. I bent down over the page;

‘This oak armchair dates from the early 1600s. Known by the Shakespeare family as Shakespeare’s Courting Chair, it was reputed to have been handed down from William Shakespeare to his granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Barnard. Lady Elizabeth did not have children and she gave the chair to the Hathaway family.’

As I read on, and it all began to sink in, thoughts and emotions rushed in and crammed together, competing for my attention, straining their necks, if thoughts have necks, but that’s just how it felt. I was staring at my very own Holy Grail of Chairs. Shakespeare’s courting chair right in front of me. Shakespeare touched this chair, sat on this chair, rested his arms on this chair. Shakespeare’s writing hand on this chair! Shakespeare’s granddaughter a fellow freecycler!

The best of chairs and the best of writing came together in this dimly lit room and I could hardly breathe. I reached out, stroke the armrest, touched the seat. Again. Third time. My mystic moment was complete. Magic does not get any better than this.

On Monday, back at work, when colleagues asked me how my weekend had been I said it was perfect, I found the most beautiful chair in the world.


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