Unsolved Mystery: The Obscure Origins of the Chesterfield

Retrospect

Chesterfield sofas appear to be sweeping the nation (including — full disclosure — my own living room). They are both cozy and tailored, and can suggest anything from the library of a gentlemen’s club (image 2) to a bordello (and hopefully neither, in my apartment). Strangely, its origins are pretty much a mystery — a mystery that we will explore, but by no means unlock, today.

Chesterfield sofas are large couches with rolled arms the same height as the back, and typically with deep button tufting and nail-head trim. The lore around the Chesterfield is that it was invented when the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Stanhope (1694-1773), commissioned a similar sofa in the mid-18th century.

The mid-18th century is indeed when there was a huge proliferation of new shapes of sofas. Sofas had only been around since about 1690 — before that they had benches, since comfort was not a high priority in furniture until the 1700's. One sofa shape popular in France in the 1770s was the “paphose,” or “turquoise” (two names adapted from Turkish words, like the word "sofa," itself) where the back flowed into two curved armrests — the arms were not the same height as the back, but there was a sense of continuity and a coziness that is familiar to the Chesterfield (image 3). So it wouldn’t be surprising if the early origins of the Chesterfield were indeed from around Philip Stanhope’s era.

However, it’s unlikely that the Earl was responsible for the development of the form as we know it. The type of button tufting we see on the Chesterfield did not emerge until the 19th century, when the burgeoning middle class wanted furniture that was at once comfortable and ostentatious. The coiled spring was patented in 1828, creating a revolution in cushy chairs, and tufting was a handsome and effective way to keep all the horsehair stuffing neatly in place.

But it takes more than mere tufting to define a Chesterfield. The first image of a true Chesterfield — high, rolled arms, generous proportions — I could find is from 1857, in a James Roberts painting of the drawing room at Balmoral Castle (image 4). (Balmoral had just been built in 1853, perfectly to Queen Victoria’s taste, but to me this room looks like a traditional room in a palace that has been hastily redecorated for the return of an imaginary monarch’s teenage son, who is in a garage band.) Ten years later, we see another Chesterfield in Frederick Walker’s 1867 illustration for Thackeray’s novel Philip (image 5), with the sofa situated in an early Aesthetic movement interior — note the stylized floral wallpaper and the lushly patterned rug. Between Victoria’s mad-for-plaid country castle and the Aesthetic parlor, the versatility of the Chesterfield was clearly apparent even in the mid-1800s. While we see the form, though, it had not yet adopted the name, and, according to the OED. the first recorded usage of the word “Chesterfield” was not until 1900. Confusing the matter is that it seems that Canadians (who I trust will correct me if I’m wrong, eh?) use “Chesterfield” to refer to sofas in general, so it’s unclear to which “Chesterfield” that 1900 usage was referring...

Despite its 18th- and 19th-century roots, the Chesterfield seems to adapt itself to a variety of modern interiors. From the wide availability of the form at many major retailers, it seems demand is as high as ever. How about you — Do you have/covet one? Or is this just another piece of Victorian furniture that should be banished to the attic?

You can find Chesterfields at Restoration Hardware, Anthropologie, and even La-Z-Boy. Here is a great roundup of Chesterfields from Apartment Therapy Los Angeles.

Images: 1 Classic Chesterfield spotted in Wales at a gorgeous house called Felin Newydd, photo by Anna Hoffman; 2 Reading Room at the Athenaeum Club in London, with Chesterfield-style chairs, photo by George P. Landow for victorianweb.org; 3 A Victorian-era paphose with button tufting, a distinctly feminine forerunner of the Chesterfield, perhaps? image from victorianweb.org; 4 The Drawing Room at Balmoral, by James Roberts (1857), in the Royal Collection; 5 The Fates, by Frederick Walker (1867), victorianweb.org; 6 Image by Dan Duchars via Desire to Inspire; 7 Image from Elle Deco via Desire to Inspire; 8 Image from the Rug Company via Desire to Inspire; 9 Anthropologie's Atelier Chesterfield, $5998(!), via Anthropologie Addict.

Thanks to Amy Sande-Friedman for her amazing help with 19th-c. paintings!

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