I am instructed we need a new sofa – and I have to agree really. The pair of sofas we dragged here from our previous location is typical of much modern commercially made furniture; they suffer a total absence of design or style and with gargantuan arms and virtually floor length skirts, their bulk dominates our compact living environs. Almost exclusively they serve to maintain one’s posterior a reasonable height above the floor, which frankly, is not reason enough to continue harbouring them. Out they must go!
I want to return to basics i.e. the seat at seat height (no necessity for a jib to extract oneself once seated), legs that look like legs (rather than short stacks of stale doughnuts) and lines that entertain the eye.
I am fond of the light airy form of late eighteenth century sofas and the manner in which they appear to stand on tip-toes. I would really like to make a sofa without stretchers (further adding to the simplicity and openness), but this sofa is for everyday living room use and not a bedroom ornament on which to drape a favourite silk gown, so it will have an underframe with the lateral stretchers set back so as not to hinder the sitters’ feet when arising from the seat.
Chippendale could certainly make a respectable seat, but in their purest Chinoiserie and Rococo forms, their flamboyance is equally at odds with today’s average suburban dwelling as the current monstrosities we’re intending to jettison and in their watered-down state, they lose most of their designer’s original vitality.
Fig.1. Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. Plate XXVI. C. 1754.
Chippendale’s design for a Chinese Sopha [sic], in Fig. 1 illustrates Rococo taste at its highest level. I would love such a sofa if I had a living room that would do it justice.
Fig. 2. A somewhat diluted, yet still ornate mahogany Chippendale Camelback sofa standing on boldly carved cabriole legs; obviously influenced by Chippendale’s ‘Chinese Sopha’ design, but a lot of its liveliness has been sacrificed. C.1765.
There were many great cabinetmakers and upholsters working in the eighteenth century who published pattern books of their designs. Most notable among them were the works by Thomas Chippendale, Robert Manwaring, George Hepplewhite, Robert Adam, William Ince and John Mayhew, and Thomas Sheraton.
I would like our new sofa to be as faithful as possible to an original eighteenth century design; one that is instantly attributable to a particular designer, yet suits simple, modern living. One furniture maker who, for me, stands out in this period is George Hepplewhite (1727-1786). Hepplewhite exhibited much more reserve in his furniture than Chippendale; his designs being synonymous with the restrained elegance associated generally with the latter part of the eighteenth century. Hepplewhite illustrated four sofa designs in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (first published posthumously by his wife, Alice, in 1788), but as was often the case, real world examples were frequently less formal interpretations but not as attenuated as many of Chippendale’s designs often were.
In The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, Hepplewhite conveniently makes recommendations for the dimensions of his various sofa designs:
“PLATES 21, 22, 23, 24, preſent four deſigns for ſofas ; the woodwork of which ſhould either be mahogany or japanned, in accordance to the chairs ; the covering alſo muſt be of the ſame.
The dimenſions of ſofas vary according to the ſize of the room and pleaſure of the purchaſer. The following is the proportion in general uſe ; length between 6 and 7 feet, depth about 30 inches, height of the feat frame 14 inches ; total height in the back 3 feet 1 inch.”
Fig. 3. George Hepplewhite, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, Plate 22.Compare the lines and decoration of this sofa with those in Fig. 1.
Fig. 4. A two-seater mahogany sofa standing on six tapered legs with spade feet. Being a reasonably faithful interpretation of the three-seater sofa design illustrated in Fig. 3. C.1790.
Fig. 5. George Hepplewhite, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, Plate 23.
Fig. 6. A japanned six-legged sofa of the type illustrated in Fig. 5. C.1790.
Fig. 7. George Hepplewhite, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, Plate 21.
Fig. 8. An informal, eight-legged, interpretation of the sofa illustrated in Fig. 7. Note the distinct rear leg graft. C.1800.
Fig. 9. A mahogany Hepplewhite sofa standing on tapered legs connected by stretchers. A looser, but regularly encountered construal of the sofas illustrated in Figs. 7 & 8. C.1790.
I have settled on this last style of sofa; heavily influenced by Hepplewhite and many examples of which still survive today. Note the front corner legs taper only on the two inside faces, affording an altogether more pleasing stance (corner legs that are tapered on all faces tend to give the piece of furniture a bow-legged appearance). The centre leg is tapered on all but the front face.
The frames of these sofas were predominantly made from beech (although oak and pine frames are not at all uncommon) with mahogany legs and stretchers. The dark green-japanned example in Fig. 6 is most likely made entirely from beech as its close-grained nature also lends itself well to painted finishes.
Beech is an elastic timber, ideally suited to chair frames and takes steel cut upholstery tacks very well. It is however, susceptible to worm attack and as a result, many antique frames become quite friable. I’ve had to repair or replace components of quite a number of upholstered beech-framed chairs and sofas over the years.
In an age when materials were dear and labour was cheap, the lower back (mahogany) legs were usually screwed to, or scarfed onto, the secondary-wood upper leg/back sections to save on the more expensive mahogany (see Fig. 7).
In the case of my sofa, it’s for our own use and I’m not prepared to pay the high prices of imported beech, so the back legs will be entirely mahogany and the remainder of the (unseen) frame will be Victorian Ash.
I have a large collection of hard patterns garnered from exemplary pieces of furniture that I’ve restored/sold over the years, so I used an extant pattern for the rear legs rather than creating a new one. I record any critical data on my patterns and on this particular leg pattern, I noted the overall dimensions of the original sofa along with a reference number relating to photos of the sofa which I keep on file.
The tack rails (the smaller section rails immediately above the seat rails) facilitate stuffing the chair and creating neat lines at the junctions of the back and end panels. Loose covers are subsequently tucked into the panel corners and held in place by the pressure of the stuffing alone.
It is a popular misconception that all stuff-over seating of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was tight-covered; that is, the expensive top fabric was tacked permanently to the frames. It’s certainly the cheapest method of covering a chair or sofa, but we know from surviving inventories and upholsterer’s receipts that much upholstered seating was supplied ‘in-the-white’ i.e. it was tight-covered in coarse calico or canvas and loose covers were consequently tailored in plain linen and fashionable printed cotton chintz. Printed textile slip cases of the period were glazed (beetled) to better protect the fugitive dyes and pigments, and covers made of such fabrics were most likely made en suite with curtains and other covers in the room and were not intended to be washed. Plain linen, cotton and serge covers were used for everyday service and intended to be removed and laundered periodically.
In the third edition of his Guide, Hepplewhite makes a couple of recommendations for upholstering, firstly, a wing chair:
“Plate 15 ſhews a deſign for a Saddle Check, or eaſy chair ; the conſtruction and uſe of which is very apparent ; they may be covered with leather, horſe-hair ; or have a linen caſe to fit over the canvaſs ſtuffing as is moſt uſual and convenient.”
…and secondly, a Duchesse (a chair and stool ensemble):
“The ſtuffing may be of the round manner as ſhewn in the drawing or low-ſtuffed, with a looſ ſquab or bordered cushion fitted to each part ; with a duplicate linen cover to cover the whole, or each part ſeparately.”
The inventory of the wealthy merchant Peter LeMaigre, made in 1794, included:
1 Large Settee covered with blue moreen*……. £4.10.0
1 Chintz Settee cover………………………………… £0.15.0
* A strong wool, wool and cotton, or cotton fabric with a moiré finish.
In a letter relating to a loose cover for an easy chair, the head of the Gillows cabinetmaking firm of Lancaster and London wrote:
“We presume [the chair] will require some sort of washing cover which requires a good deal of nicety to make them fit well to such sort of chairs.”
I will have my sofa upholstered in-the-white and will also have two loose covers made; one in a modern, yet sympathetic chintz and another in natural, unbleached linen which will be pre-washed to facilitate occasional removal and washings.
I previously assembled the two ends of the sofa and Fig. 10 shows the crest rail, back seat rail, centre back post and tack rails have been glued up. The sofa ends are merely temporarily attached; dry, to ensure accurate positioning of the glued elements.
I use horse sauce for glueing furniture together and even with modifying its properties, the open time is barely sufficient to glue the whole frame up in one attempt, hence the frame is being glued up in planned stages. Fig. 11 shows the second end frame about to be glued on.
The show wood was lightly distressed and sanded with 240 grit paper. The mahogany was then coloured and a coat of shellac brushed on to seal it.
Fig. 12. The shellac was cut back and further coats applied.
Fig. 13. When fully cured, the shellac was cut back one last time…
Fig. 14. … and all the mahogany was then waxed.
The fabric for the loose covers has been ordered from overseas and the sofa frame has gone off to the upholsterer’s.