Laurence Sterne's 18th century chair found forgotten in storage by Cambridge archivist looking for office furniture

An elegant chair belonging to one of the most famous writers of the 18th century has been returned to its Yorkshire vicarage home having been rediscovered in a fortuitous ‘accident’.

Curator Patrick Wildgust with the chair in the study at Shandy Hall. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe
Curator Patrick Wildgust with the chair in the study at Shandy Hall. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe

An archivist at Cambridge University’s Jesus College, searching for a new office chair in storage, had been astonished to come across one inscribed: ‘Here sat Laurence Sterne’.

Now, after the chair’s provenance was painstakingly researched, it has been returned to the writer’s house at Shandy Hall, now open to the public, where the author once penned his tales.

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“I think it was just forgotten about,” said curator Patrick Wildgust, of the carved wooden chair which now takes pride of place. “It’s a delight that such an accident should throw it up. It shows that things are still there to be found. Even when you think you have everything you are going to get, there are still pieces lurking in attics and lumber rooms.”

Laurence Sterne.

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Laurence Sterne, once a vicar in the Hambleton village of Coxwold, rose to acclaim with the 1759 book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Shandy Hall, so christened by Sterne’s friends to celebrate his success, is now run by The Laurence Sterne Trust to promote his writings and has a particular following in Germany and the US.

In 2019 an archivist at Sterne’s alma mater Jesus College, by the name of Robert Athol, had searched storage for a suitable office chair, pulling out an 18th century contender.

Pictured the brass plaque. Image: Jonathan Gawthorpe

On closer inspection, he found a brass plaque on the back inscribed ‘Hic sedebat Laurentius Sterne’, which loosely translates as ‘Here sat Laurence Sterne’.

Uncovering the story of the chair through logbook entries and letters, he found it had passed through the hands of subsequent Coxwold vicars until it was offered to Jesus College.

Return home

Contacting The Laurence Sterne Trust, Mr Athol offered to forego his seat and has now arranged for it to be displayed at the hall so that it can be appreciated by Sterne’s many admirers.

While there is only anecdotal proof in the letters that the chair was Sterne’s, it comes from the right period and has been repaired over 250 years, suggesting it was deemed significant.

“One of the things that is so important is that it was seen to be important, it was well looked after,” said Mr Wildgust. “The provenance of the plaque shows it was well considered.

“We have very few things that belonged to Sterne, letters perhaps are the closest you can get to a writer. But we now have the chair in which he sat. It can speak of an extraordinary association.

“I can imagine there will be writers who would be delighted to sit in Sterne’s chair. It can add another dimension to the fact he was a living, breathing writer. Sometimes things are found, just forgotten about. It’s a delight for us to be able to have it.”

The chair's tale

Logbook entries and letters show the chair came to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1928, having passed through the hands of Coxwold vicars.

Laurence Sterne had studied there from 1733-37, and looked set for a lifelong career as a country parson until he published Tristram Shandy and became an overnight celebrity.

The book was written, along with A Sentimental Journey, at Shandy Hall. The garden is open to the public. Appointment-only visits to hall.

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