Chairs: Stylish Seating – Age of Elegance to Enlightenment

Reading from Moliere
Chair by Kent

William Kent’s carved and gilded Devonshire House chair (1733-40) courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum at London

During the 18th century in both Europe and England patronage, vision and creativity came together.

They loved being crushingly grand and Polymath William Kent (1685-1748) provided stylish new settings for the English, who unlike the French wanted display rather than conversation.

William Kent was kept busy creating the interiors at Houghton Hall for England’s first Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Brilliant design combined with high standards; quality of materials and skill in execution in a combination of economic and political circumstances that has not been a reality since.

He used a selection the new rage timber Mahogany. Jamaican Mahogany was wood hard and dense, while Cuban was reddish in colour with wonderful figure. Then there were varieties known as plum pudding, rose, fiddle back and splash.

By 1720 the timber Mahogany was beginning to arrive in quantity in England meaning new designs, strength, crispness, vigour, durability, beautiful figure, and stability.

Detail Kent Chairs Houghton

Detail of the chairs designed by William Kent and made from Mahogany and gilded to grace the saloon at Houghton Hall

The original decoration and furnishings by polymath William Kent were delivered 1722- 1735 during the renovations.

The quality of the timbers and the textiles used at Houghton Hall both in its architectural format and designer furniture ensured it was the finest example of design in its age.

The palatial house was intended to celebrate and reflect Sir Robert’s rising political fortunes.

The state rooms are all a showcase for seated style where viewers could enjoy viewing Walpole’s stunning art collection, which he later sold to Catherine the Great of Russia.

In France during the Regency 1715-1723 of Phillippe, Duc d’Orleans (1674-1723) who was busy watching over a young Louis XV , the French Salon was born.

The reading of poetry or in house lectures by prominent people enabled the enlightened to question established mores.

The growing middle classes were gaining an education, questioning established ideas of thought; so a change of style represented an intellectual challenge to those earlier ideas through fashion

They developed conversation into an art form requiring a chair designed for relaxing and listening.

Poetry reflected and questioned established mores, engendering intelletual discussion and so the reading of it amongst friends became extremely fashionable.

Reading from Moliere

Jean Francois de Troy, A Reading from Moliere, private collection c1728

Gathering together in an air of relaxed informality in the drawing room of a cultivated banker, here we have a group enjoying a poetry reading from Moliere.

In Jean Francois de Troy’s wonderful image three of the chairs are covered in silk damask, ensuite with the walls, two are of needlework or tapestry, perhaps brought in from the room next door.

The pattern of silks the ladies are wearing enabled scholars to pinpoint the date to 1728*[1].

Bergere’ was the term given to this new form of armchair developed about 1725, with a long seat and a sloping back.

Within a short time it came in many shapes and sizes and was particularly comfortable.

Louis XV Chair

Paris ca 176, Walnut, carved and gilt this chair, originally part of a set, comes from the Château de Chanteloup, and is branded with the inventory mark used after 1786 when the château belonged to the Duc de Penthièvre. But it may have been made originally for the château’s previous owner, the Duc de Choiseul (1719-1785).s courtesy V & A Museum, London

Chairs in both France and England during the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century gained shapely cabriole legs

They terminated in either sabot – small metal sleeves or sported claw and ball feet.

These were perhaps modelled on the legs of the mythological creatures the satyrs – cabriole meaning to caper.

The greatest trendsetter in the first half of the 18th century in France was the King’s mistress Mme de Pompadour (1721-1764).

Chairs for Louis XV’s court had curvaceous cabriole legs – the ever-burgeoning bourgeoisie, of which she was one, busy bringing about a fashion for intimacy and informality.

This is the period when the intimate Rococo style came to fruition, writhing and spiralling its way into rooms all over Europe.

It manifested itself in the decoration of luxurious and harmonious interiors of which the eighteenth century, particularly France, was to excel.

Rooms furnished in the latest taste were designed for relaxation.

c1760 French carved adn gilded beech chair

Desk chair, ca. 1760, French, Carved and gilded beech, caning, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 1988 courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There was a very real difference between casual sophisticated chairs with caning for the city, the seat being padded.

Usually caned if they were partially or fully upholstered it was about posh pretensions and comfort.

Country style chairs followed Parisian trends although lasted longer.

They gained regional characteristics through carved or painted ornament and were made into banquettes designed for chatting, traditionally placed near the fireplace.

They were fashioned from various fruitwoods and finished with a rush seat.

They came in a range of diverse designs for different purposes – amply proportioned for grandmothers or low seats for wet nurses or nursing mothers.

During the second half of the eighteenth century a change to the neoclassical style would be reflected in the legs of chairs changing from a cabriole to a column.

This represented an intellectual challenge, as fashion and interior decoration became a backdrop for the very best of music and discussion.

In her Cabinet of the Meridian, on the first floor in the middle of the chateau at Versailles, Marie Antoinette played her harp for friends.

A small, charming refined, octagonal-shaped boudoir – “Meridian” indicates use during midday hours. Her chairs in the neo-classical taste, had legs inspired by the columns on Greek temples from antiquity.

Over in England at this time the Country gentry were busy supporting the ruling classes they were aspiring to be.


Marie Antoinette’s private ‘Meridian Room’ in the Chateau at Versailles.

They also wanted aesthetic perfection in their houses striving to emulate an ideal – classical perfection.

Chipp Chair

Gilded and upholstered armchair, 18th century, designed by Robert Adam and made by Thomas Chippendale with cabriole legs and gilded in the French taste courtesy V & A Museum, London

Considered communication between cultures was on the rise and the central figures of modern philosophy Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed the era was about ‘humanity emerging into adulthood’.

The highly stylized neoclassical taste prevailed among select members of the aristocracy led by the Scottish born London based architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) who set up his architectural business promoting the style from around 1760 onward, just as George III came to the throne.

Cabinetmaker and chair specialist Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) moved from Otley in Yorkshire to London, setting up shop in St Martin’s Lane opposite where successful merchants and lords and ladies met, to enjoy a daily outing, some business and the all new rage fashionable drink coffee.

St Martin’s Lane was where William Hogarth had established his Academy and where the, craftsmen, writers and actors with new ideas would gather to converse intent on giving birth to a new style of freedom and tolerance. They earnestly wanted to contribute to bringing back national confidence and creating stability and wealth for all.


Mahogany Lyre back chair designed by Thomas Chippendale

Chippendale hung a chair of his own design, outside the door

He wanted to be noticed and gained a great client list. This was because he offered a quality product, of excellent design. It was also made from the latest and best materials, including the new rage timbers mahogany and satinwood.

Chippendale was a really progressive chap, providing everything needed for the art of fine living. He and his styles lasted far longer than fashion dictated, his generosity in sharing his designs made him name well known.

His route to success was publication – The Gentleman & Cabinet Maker’s Director 1754 promoting the spread of his ideas. A book of designs for all sorts of furniture and furnishings, it included a range of chairs in many different styles.

His genius was that he wanted it to be copied, the ultimate form of flattery.

One famous client Actor David Garrick (1717-1779) was the man everyone went to the theatre to see. Audiences didn’t attend to see or experience Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Garrick’s Hamlet. Chippendale furnished his Hampton villa in the 1760s and 1770s.

His villa was part of the Adelphi development designed by Robert Adam and his brothers sited on the banks of the Thames. Garrick & wife Eva Marie Veigel by William Hogarth Royal Collection Windsor  

Garrick Hall Chair by ChippendaleChippendale usually produced hall chairs for his aristocratic customers displaying their owner’s coat of arms.

As Garrick did not have a coat of arms Chippendale used ribbons and beads surrounded by a triumphal laurel wreath, alluding to his client’s ‘triumph’ in the theatre.

Chippendale called himself ‘upholder’ because he also sold soft furnishings to compliment his passionately produced chairs.

He reinterpreted the French Bergere to make an elegant chair in Garrick’s Drawing Room.

The form of this chair with its rectilinear back and arms filled with Chinese fretwork remained popular until the 1770s and Thomas Chippendale included designs for Chinese chairs in his Director, first published in 1754.

George Hepplewhite (1727-1786) entered into the design milieu, with his publication The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide1788.

It helped to disseminate fashions introduced by Robert Adam and several other leading furniture makers throughout the growing market.

Hepplewhite’s chair with an oval back had first appeared in many of Robert Adam’s designs which introduced the principal of uniting elegance and utility, some ten years earlier.

HepplewhiteApprenticed to the furniture firm of Gillows in Lancaster, not one single piece of furniture has ever been identified as made by Hepplewhite.

His fame came through his designs published by his wife two years after his death, the shield shape synonymous with his name.

One of a fine pair of George III mahogany shield back armchairs proves the point.

Attributed to Gillows of Lancaster where Hepplewhite worked when he was young, the upholstered seat and ‘shield back’ stands on turned reeded front legs Adam style.

Between 1791 and 1794 Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) a Baptist Minister and Drawing Master published his The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s drawing book issued in parts between 1791 and 4.

Hepplewhite and Sheraton’s designs travelled abroad to America where they suited its housing, inspired by the American love of the Chippendale Style.

Sheraton dismissed Chippendale’s designs as, “wholly antiquated and laid aside, though possessed of great merit, according to the times in which they were executed. He went unrewarded and died a poor man.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

[1] L’Art du Dix-hitieme Siecle – Notes and studies on pictures and drawings of the eighteenth century edited by Jean Cailleux on subject of the Lecture de Moliere by Jean Francois de Troy – Jstor 2015



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