The finest collection of 17th-century English upholstered furniture in the world is on display in the show rooms at Knole. Much of it was made for the royal palaces of the ruling Stuart dynasty and is of the highest quality. It came to Knole in the very first years of the 18th century and has been arranged in the house to impress visitors ever since.
Master of the Great Wardrobe
The objects on display are the amalgamation of several separate collections. They include the collection put together by the wealthy London cloth merchant Lionel Cranfield, who became the 1st Earl of Middlesex, Lord Treasurer and Master of the Great Wardrobe to James I. He amassed an outstanding collection of furniture, paintings and tapestries at his mansion, Copt Hall in Essex. Lionel’s daughter Frances Cranfield married Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset in 1637 and, as her brothers died with no children of their own, Copt Hall and its contents passed to Frances and then to her own son Charles Sackville.
Charles Sackville lived at Copt Hall for a period and added to the Cranfield collection royal furniture acquired through his own appointment as Lord Chamberlain to William III and Queen Mary. The role of Lord Chamberlain was to manage the domestic affairs of the royal family and as a perquisite or ‘perk’ of office Charles was able to take from the royal palaces any furniture which was deemed out of date or unsuitable. In this way he acquired beds, tapestries, chairs and stools from Whitehall, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. Charles sold Copt Hall in 1701 and brought the contents to Knole, combining the Cranfield collection with his own.
Furnishing the state rooms
Fairly early on, the Sackville family seem to have used the more modest ground-floor rooms at Knole as their personal living space, filling the grand processional first-floor state rooms with the most spectacular items. The route you walk today, and the objects you view, have remained largely unchanged since around 1730. The Brown Gallery is lined with early English furniture from the royal palaces, including X-framed chairs and footstools indicative of royal status. Two carved walnut armchairs have ‘WP’ for Whitehall Palace (the great Tudor powerhouse that burned down in 1698) stamped underneath.
The Spangle Bedroom is hung with tapestries woven in Brussels at the workshop of Hendrik Reydams and taken from the royal apartments of Queen Mary after her death. The Leicester Gallery is similarly lined with royal furniture including an X-framed chair of state stamped with the inventory mark of Hampton Court Palace.
The Venetian Bedroom houses a bed, two armchairs and six stools made for James II. The Cartoon Gallery is hung with copies of Raphael’s cartoons, designs for the Sistine Chapel tapestries, brought to Knole from Copt Hall.
The lavish bed in the King’s Room, embroidered with gold and silver thread, was probably made for James II when he was the Duke of York.
The X-frame chairs
Among the most important pieces and sets of furniture at Knole are the X-framed armchairs, fashioned on folding Roman military chairs taken on campaign. Placed beneath a canopy and accompanied by stools and footstools, these chairs were known as Chairs of State and were used as thrones. From here the king of the day would give audience.
The Knole sofa
Built after 1660, the original Knole sofa, which launched a thousand imitations across the world, is covered in its original red velvet. This, too, would have been used almost like a chair of state, and it’s possible that a post-restoration queen would have received guests on the sofa, sitting beneath a canopy in a state dressing room. It was carefully conserved at the Knole Conservation Studio and is currently kept behind glass in environmentally stable conditions in the Leicester Gallery.
One of the many fascinating discoveries during the Inspired by Knole conservation project included the ebony kussenkast, found in pieces in Knole’s attics. The kussenkast has been recorded in Knole's inventories since 1730, and piecing it back together took painstaking work over a period of two years. There is 19th century photographic evidence of it in the Spangle Bedroom, and that is where it now resides. Loosely translated, kussenkast is Dutch for cushion wardrobe, so-called for the style of its carving rather than its use. It is notable due to its rarity as an exemplary piece of decorative furniture for both its period and style.