Comfort is a relatively new concept in human history. In our era, which values ease and relaxation, we may find it impossible to imagine a living room without a big comfy couch. The sofa did not exist until the 1680s, and was not immediately regarded as a domestic essential. If you think about pre-modern life, when women wore heavy skirts and constricting corsets with whalebone structures, taking a seat on a sofa was just as likely to cause discomfort as to create ease. A woman could not just fling herself on to the welcoming cushions but had to sit in an upright position that did not disrupt her expensive, carefully arranged clothes or her sense of decorum. Also bathing was not a frequent activity – why would you want to be so close to another smelly or overly perfumed person unless you had to, as when sitting in a church pew?
A BOX SEAT SETTLE, QUEEN ANNE, DATED 1707. SOLD FOR £3,240.
Early sofas did indeed share a physical resemblance to church pews. The precursor to the couch was the settle, a wooden bench with arms that was favoured during the 17th century because its high back trapped in warmth from a nearby fireplace. Settles often had cushions on the seats but in a period when floors were made of dirt or straw and furniture was meant to be practical and fulfill multiple purposes, a cushion would have been a luxury.
A GEORGE II NEEDLEWORK-UPHOLSTERED MAHOGANY SOFA, CIRCA 1750. SOLD FOR $181,000.
By the 18th century, we see padded seats, backs and armrests – comfort at last! The more expansive backs showcased the quality of the upholstery, and as tapestries and textiles were often more expensive than furniture, a large sofa was an ideal opportunity to display your wealth. Imported textiles and tapestries were highly desirable. Sofa construction also changed. Instead of using uncarved wooden posts for the legs and structure, cabinetmakers began elaborately carving the frame in Rococo designs. They also used an internal frame for upholstery rather than just attaching the fabric directly to the exterior frame, which in turn made the upholstery more plush and comfortable.
JEAN-MICHEL MOREAU, CALLED MOREAU LE JEUNE, THREE EROTIC SCENES. ESTIMATE £5,000–7,000.
Comfort was not, however, always lauded as an improvement. It was at this time that sofas began to develop a bad reputation as a sign of moral failure: a woman in repose on a sofa was almost certainly up to no good. A sofa allowed her to recline and show off her clothing and body, thus attracting men. The English 18th-century art historian and politician Horace Walpole noted that lounging on a sofa was akin to “lolling in a péché-mortel,” or a mortal sin. The all-over upholstery was inherently associated with sloth because the sitter was inclined to sprawl or loll around all day. Upholstered armrests were an invention by the French in the early 18th century and meant that bodies could be positioned in new ways – one could lean back or even recline. These new postures were the beginning of “casual,” and in the 1700s, casual was equated with immoral. Letters from the period even reveal that sofas were often hidden from site when good company came to visit, so that a family did not appear slothful or sinful.
IMPORTANT CANAPÉ EN CORBEILLE EN BOIS SCULPTÉ ET DORÉ D'ÉPOQUE LOUIS XV, ATTRIBUÉ À HENRI AMAND, AN IMPORTANT GILTWOOD CANAPÉ EN CORBEILLE, LOUIS XV, ATTRIBUTED TO HENRI AMAND. SOLD FOR € 51,900.
While most accounts of famous promiscuous women seducing men on sofas have no historical proof, the public was fascinated by the idea of the female-sofa seductress put forth in popular novels of the day. The best description of the sofa as a naughty piece of furniture comes from Le Sopha: conte moral, a 1742 novel by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. Le Sopha tells the tale of Amanzéï, a courtier whose soul was condemned to be reincarnated in sofas until two virgins consummated their love on him. The story is told from the point of view of Amanzéï’s after he has been freed and returned to human form. At the beginning of the tale he states, “After Brahma had pronounced my doom, he himself bore my soul into a sofa which the maker was about to deliver to a woman of quality, reputed to be superbly chaste; but just as it is said that few men are heroes to their valets, so I may safely affirm that few women are saints to their sofas.”
A TUFTED RED LEATHER-UPHOLSTERED MAHOGANY CHESTERFIELD SOFA. SOLD FOR $22,500.
Although it has largely escaped its compromising reputation, the sofa can still be regarded as a symbol of unnecessary indulgence. A 2012 New York Times article about Restoration Hardware’s oversize couches quoted a Texas consumer who said, “This couch is a beast. In fact it is so big it’s almost like having a whole cow in your living room.” Sofas as excess, sloth and sex: whatever its reputation, a plush upholstered couch will always be more inviting than a cold medieval bench.
LEAD IMAGE: LOUIS GAUFFIER, PORTRAIT OF ELIZABETH, LADY WEBSTER, LATER LADY HOLLAND, SEATED FULL-LENGTH, IN A WHITE DRESS AND FEATHERED HAT, WITH HER SPANIEL PIERROT, ON A 'CHAISE-LONGUE,' WITH A GUITAR, IN AN INTERIOR. ESTIMATE $300,000–600,000.