Campus & Community

The President’s Chair

4 min read

… Facts respecting an old arm-chair

At Cambridge. Is kept in the College there.
Seems but little the worse for wear.
That’s remarkable when I say
It was old in President Holyoke’s day.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes

From “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table”
What more can be said of the Harvard President’s Chair? It all depends on whether you want fact or fancy, statistics or speculation. Aside from the physical details of the object itself, one of the only certainties is that President Edward Holyoke (in office 1737-69) bought the chair for the College. Where and how he got it, no one seems to know for sure.

A late descendant of the great chairs once used by the masters of medieval households, Harvard’s symbolic seat of authority seems to have inspired questions almost from the day it arrived. (Even in the usually calm, collected pages of an exhibition catalog, it is described as “bizarre.”)

Holyoke himself recalled at least 50 occasions when he had to explain to a curious questioner that he knew nothing definite about the chair’s history. Historians of furniture believe that this “three-square turned chair” was made in England or Wales between 1550 and 1600.

“However the chair was obtained for the college, it captured Holyoke’s attention as an imposing, ancient, and curious throne, suitable to the authority of the president and establishing an iconographic link between Harvard College and its late medieval English prototypes, Oxford and Cambridge,” as Robert Trent observes in “New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century,” the catalog to a 1982 exhibition in which the chair was shown at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Holyoke gave the chair a personal Harvard touch by crowning the front posts with large, globular oak pommels of his own making. A 1976 microanalysis found that the rest of the chair is made of European ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Sitting for artist John Singleton Copley (c. 1760), Holyoke became the first of several Harvard presidents (including Walker, Lowell, Conant, Pusey, Bok, and Rudenstine) to pose proudly — and uncomfortably — in the chair for an official oil portrait.

Long before the chair rested in the Fogg Museum between Commencement and other convocations (as it does now), Harvard students put the chair to uses far different — and far from diffident. The “Davenport Republican” (Feb. 22, 1903) reports that “[t]he President’s Chair used to stand in the Harvard library, where, according to tradition, it gave a student the right to kiss any young woman he was showing through the college and who thoughtlessly sat down in it. Whether or not the privilege was often taken advantage of the present generation has no means of knowing.”

The story cites humbler uses as well: “The chair seems simply to have appeared in the college and been dedicated to use by the president, not at first on so purely formal an occasion as commencement but merely as a serviceable piece of everyday furniture.” (Trent, in fact, confirms that “[a]lthough the thronelike quality of these chairs lends them an official air, they were undoubtedly domestic chairs originally.”) The article does not suggest when the chair graduated to purely formal celebrations.

When the chair holds its robed occupant, onlookers cannot detect the odd geometry by which its triangular seat points toward a square back rippling with knobby dowels and finials. In the rear, a central post joins the back and the apex of the seat.

Physically, the President’s Chair stands 46.5 inches high (118.1 cm) and 32.5 inches wide (82.5 cm), with seat height and depth both just under 20 inches (50.8 cm). Trent notes that “[t]he superstructure of a square framework set on the single rear post makes the chair tip over easily to either side.”

Perhaps by striking their own precarious balance in this strange seat of authority, the successors of Edward Holyoke come to sense what the job is all about.