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North Devon in 100 Objects: 71. John Gay’s Chair

A leather chair with hinged writing-ledge and inkwell.

This leather chair with hinged writing-ledge and inkwell is a 19th century copy of a chair believed to have been used by John Gay (the original is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London).

John Gay is Barnstaple’s most famous literary figure, now remembered for The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728. The playwas a smash hit and was said to have made its producer, John Rich – rich. There have been several revivals of The Beggar’s Opera which was also the inspiration for the 1928 Threepenny Opera of composer Kurt Weil and dramatist Bertold Brecht.

John Gay was born in Barnstaple in 1685 in what is now Joy Street.  He left the town after finishing at the Grammar School, at that time in St     Anne’s Chapel, and did all his writing in London, where he was a friend and contemporary of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.  It was difficult to make a living as a poet at that time, and Gay was dependant on rich benefactors.  He died in 1732 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.  His tomb bears some of Gay’s most famous lines: “Life’s a jest and all things show it; I thought so once, and now I know it.”

The “original” chair in the V&A was linked to John Gay because a manuscript was found in one of the compartments.  We now know that the manuscript was a forgery, although the chair was the correct date for Gay. So this chair is a copy of a fake!

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