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The so-called 'Knole Sofa'

Category

Furniture

Date

circa 1635 - circa 1640

Materials

Beech covered with silk velvet and passemanterie, the cushioned wings adjusted by iron ratchets

Measurements

104.0 x 172.5 x 56.0 cm

Place of origin

England

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Collection

Knole, Kent (Accredited Museum)

NT 129442

Summary

The so-called ‘Knole Sofa’ (also known as ‘Knole Settee’) is a couch chair made of beech covered with crimson velvet and passemanterie with cushioned wings adjusted by iron ratchets. Presumably made in England around 1640, this couch is the most celebrated single piece of furniture at Knole. The prototype of innumerable reproductions made from the late 19th century onwards, this distant ancestor of the modern sofa was originally used in quite a different, and much more formal, context: placed beneath a canopy, the ‘state couch’ functioned like a double throne chair on which kings and queens could be seated next to each other. As Christopher Rowell notes, ‘the so-called ‘Knole Sofa’ [represents] an icon that gave its name and form to countless copies manufactured in Britain and America’ (Rowell 2006). The couch appears to be part of a larger set of matching crimson velvet seat furniture, now in the so-called Leicester Gallery at Knole. It comprises two further couches (129438.1-129438.2), six chairs (129439.1-129439.6), and eight stools – four high (129441.1-129441.4) and four low (129440.1-129440.4). All three Knole couch chairs were at the cutting edge of furniture and design at the time.

Full description

Given the extreme rarity of early seventeenth-century upholstered furniture, it is extraordinary that Knole has so much. Some of the pieces dating from the first half of the century are unique survivals. The so-called ‘Knole Sofa’ is an icon that gave its name and form to countless copies manufactured in Britain and America from the later nineteenth century. In 1945, R. W. Symonds noted the ‘The famous Knole Couch ... has been reproduced in tens of thousands by nearly every furniture manufacturer from Victorian to modern times’ (Symonds 1945, p. 114). Eddy Sackville-West, 5th Lord Sackville (1901-65), was apparently once asked how he could live ‘in that dark old place in Kent with all those old sofas?’ To which he replied: ‘One sofa!’ The couch appears to be part of a larger set of matching crimson velvet seat furniture, now in the so-called Leicester Gallery at Knole. It comprises two further couches (129438.1-129438.2), six chairs (129439.1-129439.6), and eight stools – four high (129441.1-129441.4) and four low (129440.1-129440.4). All three Knole couch chairs were at the cutting edge of furniture and design at the time. The Knole Sofa appears to be English, although its form probably derived from the Continent. That the type was French in style was the assumption of R. W. Symonds, who described the design of the Knole Sofa as ‘undoubtedly of French origin’ (Symonds 1945, p. 114). The double-ended rectangular form may ultimately derive from the Italian lettuccio, which was essentially a lockable rectangular coffer with arms and back that doubled as a daybed, couch or throne when cushions and textiles were taken out of the coffer and placed on the seat. It is evident that two-seater couches were indeed used as thrones under canopies. This is proven by a rare depiction of the type in F. van Buesecom’s engraving of the wedding in London on 12 May 1641 of the future Stadtholder Willem II of The Netherlands (1626-50), son of Frederick Hendrik and Amalia of Solms, to Princess Mary, eldest daughter of Charles I and Henriette Maria. The four parents are depicted facing each other and seated à deux on couches under canopies, which indicates that Couch Chairs were used as double thrones when the King and Queen were seated together.

Provenance

The ‘Knole Sofa’ may have been acquired as a royal perquisite by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset or his maternal grandfather Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, in their capacities of Lord Chamberlain and Masters of the Great Wardrobe. It is thought to belong to a suite of upholstered furniture, the remainders of which were first recorded at Knole in 1706. Knole and the majority of its furniture were accepted by HM Treasury in part payment of death duties and transferred to the National Trust in 1946.

References

Symonds 1945: R. W. Symonds, 'The Upholstered Furniture at Knole I', Burlington Magazine LXXXVI (May 1945): 110-15 Beard and Coleman 1999: Geoffrey Beard and John Coleman, 'The Knole Settee', Apollo CXLIX / 446 (April 1999): 24-28 Rowell 2006: Christopher Rowell, 'A Set of Early Seventeenth-Century Crimson Velvet Seat Furniture at Knole: New Light on the "Knole Sofa"', Furniture History XLII (2006): 27-52

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