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Article by Jennie Buist Brown | 8th September 2019

Sofa, so good!

In your living room is it a sofa, a settee or a couch? In our house it’s known as a sofa but once upon a time a generic name for this type of seating – or even a piece of furniture – was a chesterfield

When we refer to chesterfields today, we usually mean the sumptuous large leather button-back sofas which are now considered something of a classic – some would even go as far as to call them design icons.

Antique chesterfields can still be found and are always worth restoring if you’re lucky enough to come across one, but you will need deep pockets nowadays to buy a restored one or to have one restored.

So how did this sofa get its name and how did it became a shorthand way of describing a deep-buttoned, leather-covered sofa? It seems there are differing opinions and no real consensus. Popular opinion has it that the distinctive style of the chesterfield sofa can be attributed to Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (who died in March 1773) who was a public speaker and something of a fashion expert in his day.

The story goes that Stanhope wanted a davenport – a large sofa, especially a formal one – for gentlemen that would allow them to sit comfortably straight without wrinkling their clothes, so he commissioned a local craftsman to make him one. The resulting sofa was then named after the Earl. Clearly he was very keen on furniture, as another story tells that on his deathbed, with his servant and his friend, Mr Dayrolls, in attendance, his last words, to his servant, were: “Give Mr Dayrolls a chair.” Then he died. The servant apparently was confused as to whether the Earl meant his friend should sit down or have a chair as a gift!

Others believe that the name is a mystery with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Earl. The name, they say, means nothing more than a sofa or a piece of furniture, and point to the fact that in the 18th century, deep-buttoning on furniture was already fashionable but in velvet, not leather.

Get the look

So despite its mysterious origins, what should you look for in a chesterfield? With scrolled arms and rolled backs, the arms and back should be of the same padded height. The back, arms, front – and sometimes even the seat cushions – should be clad in deep leather and have polished button tufting. The button tufts form a series of diamond-shaped patterns standing on end when you look at them. Famously long, the original sofas can be up to eight feet or more in length.

A real chesterfield – whether made recently or in the 19th century – follows the craftsmanship of the original designs. Authentic chesterfield sofas are handmade from the frame up. Look for bun feet made from mahogany. Though many manufacturers now use urethane foam as the padding, original chesterfields featured high-quality horsehair padding.

Modern manufacturers that pride themselves on staying true to the distinctive chesterfield style often add a label or tag of authenticity with a serial number fitted beneath the couch. This tag means that the furniture-maker followed the original manufacturing techniques.

Since chesterfields are still being produced today, to authenticate an antique one, you should contact an antique appraiser or dealer. Be prepared to pay from £3,000 for a small antique 19th century chesterfield in good condition. 

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