Today we have one of my favorite pieces in the museum: a Grecian sofa or couch, circa 1810-1825, which can be seen (though not sat upon) in the parlor of the Beall-Dawson House. The sofa was purchased by the donor, Eugenie LeMerle Riggs, in the late 1940s for use in her home “Cherry Grove,” an historic house in Ashton.  She donated the sofa to the Historical Society in 1985.

This piece elicits many comments and questions from our visitors, mostly along the lines of “What do you call that?” or, even more to the point, “How are you supposed to sit on that?” We’ve called it a variety of things over the years, from settee to sofa to recamier, but I try to stick with the definitions provided by Edgar Miller in his 1937 American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs. He describes this form as a Directoire style Grecian sofa (more on this in a moment).

The sofa is mahogany, with a velvet upholstered cushion, gold painted lines, and brass ornamentation. The crosspiece on the larger arm is in the shape of two lyres, and there are brass mythical creatures (fish-tailed winged lions) on the seat rail, above the saber-shaped legs. These elements are all nods to – or approximations of – classical Greek forms, part of the classic revival style that was popular in Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The maker of this particular piece is unknown; the only clue to its pre-Cherry Grove history is the word “ARCOS.” pasted on the underside of the shorter arm. So far, Arcos – Maker? Owner? Location? – is proving elusive.

Back to Mr. Miller, and the name of our piece. First: sofa or couch? Contemporary sources, such as furniture-maker catalogs and fashion magazines, often used those terms interchangeably. Some modern museum catalogs refer to this form as a couch, leaving sofa for more upholstered looks. Miller concedes that “in applying the word ‘sofa’ to some of these ‘Grecian’ pieces, we are departing from the definition of ‘sofa’ given [previously], as some of these ‘sofas’ have no upholstery on the back and others have only one arm.” Since I’m following Miller, I’ve decreed this a sofa.

Next, what makes it Grecian? According to Miller, “The principal feature in the Grecian sofas is that the back does not extend over the entire rear of the sofa, but leaves a portion of the seat without a back, indicating that the sofa was intended to be used for reclining, not as a sitting place. Another feature is that the two arms are of different sizes, the arm at the foot being smaller than the one at the head.” This design is based on forms seen in ancient Greek art, again part of the classical revival. The “Directoire style” I mentioned is defined by the “fine continuous curve” (Miller again) that can be followed from arm to arm across the front, and refers to the Directoire period in late 18th century France.

And finally, how do you sit on it? The best-known image of such furniture in use is the “Portrait of Madame Recamier” by Jacques Louis David, 1800. (This portrait is responsible for the use of “Recamier” as a name for sofas such as ours, although sticklers point out that the lady’s painted seat is shorter and backless, and has symmetrical arms.) You could (if we let you, which we won’t) perch delicately on the upholstered seat, perhaps flirting with a gentleman over your fan; or you could, like Madame Recamier, recline gracefully (though not for long periods of time, at least not comfortably), with your skirts arranged for maximum admiration. This isn’t a sofa meant for flopping onto after a hard day at the office; it’s about display, not relaxation.

This circa 1970 image shows the front hall of Cherry Grove (built 1773), with our sofa at left.