The History of Chesterfield Sofas
The Chesterfield sofa, with its low back, rolled arms and deeply buttoned upholstery, is a timeless design classic that evokes elegant gentleman’s clubs, country houses and Victorian living rooms. Though they remain symbols of style, luxury and the upper classes; these days a Chesterfield fits as well into a light and airy modern flat as it does a wood-panelled smoking room. In this blog, we explore the history of this unique piece of furniture, and how a design created 300 years ago has stood the test of time and evolved with changing fashions.
The Earl of Chesterfield
Although the real origins of the Chesterfield sofa design are somewhat shrouded in mystery and lost to time, many people believe that it originated with the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Lord Phillip Stanhope. A common but probably apocryphal legend has it that, on his deathbed, he was visited by his godson Solomon Dayrolles and, when he said “give Mr Dayrolles a chair” just before passing away, his servant took him at his word and sent Daryolles away with an elegant leather-covered chair with deep-set buttons.
It’s not clear whether the Earl can really be credited with the invention of the Chesterfield, but it is likely that it originated around the time he lived. It may well have derived from a French design that was popular around the same time and which, like the Chesterfield, had a back that flowed seamlessly into the arms in such a way as to give it a cosy and welcoming shape.
If the Earl did either design or commission a sofa similar to a Chesterfield, it would not be surprising; the buttoning and upright back were popular at the time as they allowed a man to sit in comfort but without slouching, sinking into the upholstery, or crumpling his clothes. It is, however, perhaps more likely that the Earl of Chesterfield’s sofa was upholstered in velvet since this was used much more frequently than leather for this kind of deep-buttoned furniture.
While we can’t be quite sure what kind of sofa the Earl of Chesterfield really used, we do know that by the mid-19th Century, they were becoming popular in Victorian homes. Perhaps the most notable example is that in an 1857 picture of the recently redecorated Balmoral Castle can be seen two sofas that are quite clearly what we now consider Chesterfields, with the exception that they are upholstered in a vibrant tartan that matches many of the other furnishings in the room.
Harris Tweed Orkney in Bracken Herringbone with Brompton Tan Piping
Back in London, leather Chesterfields that looked very like those we know today were becoming more and more popular in the homes and, especially, the offices of wealthy gentlemen. Interestingly, while they looked much like modern chesterfields, the construction was rather different. They would have been simply stuffed with horsehair rather than having spring cushions, and the buttoning probably made the tough, un-sprung leather a lot less comfortable than the sofas we think of today. One theory goes that this was deliberate, and these sofas were commissioned for ante-rooms and waiting areas outside offices, where visitors to the great and good of Victorian London could wait to be seen without getting too comfortable.
As time went on, however, sprung cushions were added to the sofas, and they became more comfortable. By the middle of the 19th Century, Chesterfield sofas were a firm favourite in the living rooms of wealthy Victorians and, from there, rapidly also became popular in the ‘homes away from home’ that were the libraries and smoking rooms of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, now strongly associated with the Chesterfield.
The British Empire
With the British upper classes now so comfortable on Chesterfield sofas in their homes and clubs, it is hardly surprising that they began to be exported to the furthest-flung corners of the British Empire by army officers and colonial administrators seeking to furnish their residences in India, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the elegant and classic design remained popular long after the British Empire receded, and today Chesterfields are found in luxury hotel lobbies, private clubs and elegant homes across the globe.
Maybe the most famous owner of a Chesterfield sofa (or, in fact, several such sofas) was Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He believed that making sure his patients felt comfortable and not distracted helped them to unburden themselves, and so he ensured that his studies or consulting rooms always had a sofa in. Although the only one that remains today is a divan that he used towards the end of his career, it is the Chesterfield that is the original ‘therapist’s couch’ and that became popular with other therapists inspired by Freud.
Interestingly, Sigmund Freud’s grandson Lucien, the artist, also found a prominent place for a Chesterfield sofa in his work. Many of the subjects of his paintings posed on or in front of a dark chesterfield, which thus forms the backdrop to a number of his paintings.
The 70s and 80s
The perfect proportions of the Chesterfield have somehow allowed it to thrive in every decade regardless of changing fashions around it. Of course, nothing survived the 80s entirely unaltered, and it’s true that in this era you were more likely to see a Chesterfield in a vibrant velvet than in the classic brown leather Chesterfield of a Victorian gentleman’s club, but the shape and style was unchanged. These sofas were ubiquitous in homes and bars of the time, and vintage or reproduction examples remain popular now, with the advantage that using velvet and other fabric upholstery gives the option of a far greater range of colours and patterns.
Modern Chesterfield Sofas
Today, Chesterfield sofas are popular in all their various guises. Classic, clubby dark leather chesterfields are redolent of cultured gentlemen sipping brandy in dusky rooms and are perfectly suited to vintage décor or as a counterpoint to a bright, modern home. Equally, crisp black or white leather chesterfields offer a distinctive mix of a classic shape with a modern aesthetic that works perfectly in modern spaces.
Of course, you’re not restricted to black, brown or white. Many chesterfields are available covered in brightly dyed leather including pink, purple, red and green. The vibrancy of the colouring combined with a style that’s existed for hundreds of years is a bold design choice that is popular as a centrepiece to a room, or to complement a wider colour scheme.
An even greater range of colours and patterns is available for people who have opted for a fabric-covered Chesterfield, with almost anything on offer from pink velvet, harking back to the Chesterfields of the 70s and 80s, to tartan wool; perfect for country cottages and reminiscent of those early Victorian sofas at Balmoral.
With so much variety on offer and the ability for a Chesterfield to fit in anywhere and look like a timeless vintage item or a cutting-edge modern design choice, or anything in between, it seems perfectly possible that they’ll still be around, largely unchanged, in another 300 years.