Dr. Samuel Johnson's Armchair

This is the story of how my great grandfather, Rev. William Wingfield Sandford, came to own Samuel Johnson's armchair, the famous chair in which he would sit and pontificate to his circle of friends.


I have a very vague memory from my childhood, aged possibly10 or 11, of my grandfather in his study at Ingham Rectory telling me something about Samuel Johnson. Alas, the detail is gone but imagine my interest when I received the following email in 2012:


Dear Michael,

I was delighted to find your Sandford family website because I have just started some research that has led me to a Sandford, and I'm hoping that you may be able to give me some help!

My research is on a chair (picture attached- see below right), which is currently in a private collection. This chair was once in the possession of a Mr. W Sandford. In 1908 Mr Sandford offered to lend this chair to the Dr. Johnson Birthplace Memorial Museum, in Lichfield, for their bicentenary celebrations of Samuel Johnson's birth. In the records it is described as Dr. Johnson's chair. It is not clear from the museum records if the loan of the chair was accepted.

In 1928 Christies sell a chair (July 12th, lot 86), and their provonance details record the chair as from Mr. W. Sandford.
They call the chair 'Dr. Johnson's chair', and in their review of the season that year they explain that this was the chair from which 'Dr. Johnson used to reign and fulminate'.

Do you have any idea which W. Sandford this may have been, and, if there is any Sandford connection (or particular interest) with Dr. Samuel Johnson?

Any help at all that you could give me would be very greatly appreciated.



Dear Jenny,

Thank you for your enquiry, which I have only just read, because I am on holiday at present and not checking all my email accounts regularly.

My great grandfather was Reverend William Wingfield Sandford. He died in 1929 age 84. In 1902 he became Vicar of Rodington, Salop, a post which he held to his death. So if the W Sandford who wrote to the the Museum in 1908 was my great grandfather, then possibly the letter will indicate he was writing from Shropshire. Even if there is no place
mentioned I can compare handwriting with my great grandfather's letters.

While I don't recall any specific family interest in Dr Johnson, it is of course possible. I seem to have some recollection of being aware of a connection between Sandford and Dr Johnson's chair, but of course I may have just seen something on the web referring to the sale, rather than anything in the family [records or traditions] which are rather thin for this period.

William Wingfield Sandford had all Sandford family connections in Ireland where he was born (to another William Sandford) they were educated at TCD, and after graduation WWS came to England: Durham, then near Stoke, finally Shropshire. He married a daughter of Rev John Ford of Old Romney. An item such as a chair could have been inherited in from a number of relations.

I can contact some of my Sandford cousins and ask if they know anything. There are of course other unrelated Sandford family lines. Although I am not in touch with anyone, I certainly have some information about the different families and may be able to make contacts if there is any further information to which might help identify a particular W. Sandford.


Samuel Johnson's Armchair in 1928 Samuel Johnson's Armchair in 2012

On the left - the chair from the Christie's 1928 sale catalog ----- On the right - the chair in 2012 now owned by the philanthropist John H Bryan of Chicago


Below is what I then went on to discover about the chair's history. I will be adding full details of all my sources later, but for now it turns out that it was indeed owned by my great grandfather for a period of 29 years. Undoubtedly my grandfather and also my father as a boy and then a young man would have had the honour of sitting in it when visiting Rev WW Sandford at his rectory in Rodington Shropshire. Now, if only it had not been sold, I might be sitting on it now, "reigning and fulminating" in a pale imitation of the great Dr Johnson. That is provided my family had been able to afford to pay the death duties on a chair with such a provenance! I suspect the remarkable provenance had been forgotten when it was sold in 1993 - at least there is no mention of it in Christie's catalog for the sale on 8 July that year. Then £5750 without a provenance: what would it be with the following provenance today?

The Provenance of Samuel Johnson's Armchair 1784 - 1928

A summary © M.C.W.Sandford 17 October 2012


Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

 residue of estate left to his Jamaican servant Francis Barber, who had had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua ReynoldsFrancis Barber


Francis Barber (lived Burntwood but died Stafford Infirmary and buried 28 Jan 1801)

no will or admon found so it is assumed his surviving son, Samuel then age about 15,  would inherit the armchair


Samuel Barber (died Turnstall 6 July 1828)

 Around 1799 or 1800 at about 14 years of age Samuel Barber was first employed as a servant by Gregory Hickman, Surgeon at Burslem

 Samuel Barber left Gregory Hickman's employment, and became a committed Methodist. The exact circumstances of how ownership of the armchair and several other Johnsonian items was transferred from servant to employer are not recorded.


Gregory Hickman (surgeon of Burslem, died there 13 June 1816)


The following is a Letter of Authentication addressed to Mrs Leicester (Prudence Leicester below) written by Esther Sharp most probably in the period 1874 to 1876.


“Dr. Samuel Johnson's Chair.

It came into the possession of Aunt Margaret, through your father having purchased it at the sale of Mr. Hickman's furniture. Mr. Hickman was a surgeon in Burslem and lived at Wedgewood Place, in the house in which Papa lived, and where we were born. He was a native of Lichfield, and during the time he lived in Burslem, he had a negro servant, known as ' Black Sam,' who had formerly been Dr. Johnson's servant [sic] : and through this man, in some way, Mr. Hickman became possessor of the chair now standing in your hall. I do not think there is a doubt as to its genuineness.

In one of the numbers of the Leisure Hour there is a drawing of the chair in question. I will search it out and tell you more of it. ' Black Sam ' married a Miss Sherwin from the Star Croft. Mamma is not certain whether she was Thomas Sherwin's daughter.”


This letter was acquired by Rev W W Sandford when he purchased the chair in 1899.


From the evidence in the letter we can deduce that the chair descended through the Cotton family as follows:


Benjamin Cotton, died 1846, Burslem, was school proprietor at Bleak Hill House, Burslem, purchased the chair amongst Gregory Hickman's furniture


On Benjamin's death the chair remained at Bleak Hill House where it was then in the possession of Benjamin Cotton's elder sister Margaret Cotton who continued to run the school at Bleak Hill House.


Margaret Cotton died 1876 was unmarried so on her death the chair went to Benjamin's daughter Prudence.


Prudence Leicester (nee Cotton) (died Burslem 1893) was the daughter of Benjamin Cotton and inherited the chair on her aunt Margaret's death. She lived at Bleak Hill House with her husband Thomas Leicester who she had married in 1850


Thomas Leicester (died Burslem 4 April 1898) was a chemist and druggist with a shop in Burslem, but he had been living at Bleak Hill House and inherited it on the death of his wife and her relations, the chair was part of the house contents as it had been since about 1816.


Thomas Cotton Leicester (died 1899) might have been expected to inherit the contents of his father's house but with his death it seems that a sale of the contents was held in December 1899. This was when my great grandfather, Rev William Wingfield Sandford, Vicar of Chesterton, just two miles distant from Burslem, bought the chair at the sale.


Dr Johnson's Chair1899-1929


Rev William Wingfield Sandford (died 9 June 1929) had taken the chair with him as he moved first to Grindon, Staffs then to Rodington, Salop.


Rev John Hamilton Sandford, son of WWS, had been born at Chesterton in 1877 and having been brought up there knew the Burslem area well. When the chair was sold he was 21 years old and an undergraduate at John's Oxford. Later, he became curate of St Mary's Stafford, and in 1907 he was in contact with a Johnsonian researcher. He related to the researcher the information about the chair his father then owned. This must have led directly to the armchair being loaned for exhibition at the September 1909 Celebration at Lichfield  of the Bi-centenary of Johnson's Birth.


 In September 1907, in the course of his inquiries into the history of the chair, the Rev. John Hamilton Sandford went to see Mrs. Douglas, of 85, Hall Street, Burslem.  He reported,

" She is a wonderful old lady of 95 years, and still in possession of all her

faculties. She was an intimate friend of the Cottons. Her uncle Ward wrote a history

of Stoke-on-Trent. He was a great friend of Mr. Hickman, and Mrs. Douglas often

heard him speak of him. She also remembers him mentioning Mr. Hickman's negro



The “Uncle Ward” was John Ward (1781-1870), a solicitor who was a historian of Stoke and who had written The Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent published in 1843.


The Rev William Wingfield Sandford had prepared his last will on 4 January 1928. It does not mention the chair. Later that year he sold the armchair at Christies on 12 July 1828 for 560 guineas to Mr J.A. Lewis. The proceeds would have added about 10% to the value his estate which was recorded as £6,053 for probate  (16 Aug 1929).


J.A. Lewis purchased the chair in the Christies 1928 sale. Nothing is presently known about him. The sale catalog says

A QUEEN ANNE WALNUT ARM-CHAIR, of X-shape, with scroll legs and stretcher, the seat and the spoon back stuffed, and covered with brown leather

The chair once belonged to DR. Johnson

So Mr Lewis knew he was getting a Samuel Johnson chair


Later owners …

Mr McAlpine bought at Christies Auction 7 August 1993 Price estimate £5000-£8000. The actual sale price was £5750.

The catalog just says WALNUT OPEN ARMCHAIR with cartouche-shaped padded back and dished seat covered in floral petit-point needlework, with channelled stylised X-frame on short cabriole legs joined by waved stretchers and on hoof feet, repaires to front feet and stretchers, back feet tipped. No mention of the provenance as had been in the 1928 sale.


John H Bryan brought through Hotspur Antiques Ltd in 1995


Researching the above provenance, led me to other armchairs for which the distinction of being "Dr. Johnson's Armchair" is also claimed. But Dr Johnson moved around and doubtless there were a number of armchairs he liked to use in the various places he lived, stayed, or met his freinds. His armchairs are perhaps not quite as prolific as the beds that Queen Elizabeth I slept in her travels round her kingdom. I will make a list of the various chairs which I came across, and when it is ready I will add it below.


©Michael C W Sandford, 2012, 2013.

Page first uploaded to sandfordfamily.org.uk 16 June 2013