Knole’s furniture collection
A fine collection of 17th-century English upholstered furniture is on display in the showrooms 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 of royal furniture acquired through his own appointment as Lord Chamberlain to William III and Queen Mary. As a perquisite or ‘perk’ of office, Charles was able to take from the royal palaces any furniture which was deemed out of date or unsuitable.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 showrooms
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 showrooms 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 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 Cartoon Gallery is hung with copies of Raphael’s cartoons, designs for the Sistine Chapel tapestries, brought to Knole from Copt Hall.
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 c.1635–40, 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 a rare and exemplary piece of decorative furniture.
The state beds at Knole
The three state beds at Knole are some of the most significant surviving pieces of royal furniture in Britain:
The Spangle Bedroom
The Spangled Bed is furnished with rare late 16th or early 17th-century silk hangings embellished with appliqué strapwork and and adorned with silver and silver-gilt spangles or sequins from which the bed takes its name. These textiles are believed to have been part of a canopy of state acquired as a perk of office by Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex.
These hangings were used to create a suite of lying-in furniture for Lady Cranfield at Chelsea House in London for the birth of their son James Cranfield in 1621. The suite consisted of one large bed, a smaller bed and a canopied cradle. The textiles from these three beds were then re-used to produce the bed-hangings for the Spangled Bed.
Recent conservation work has shown that they have been patched and cut down to fit with the current bed frame. The bed was taken to Copt Hall in 1625 and brought to Knole in 1701.
The Venetian Bedroom
The state bed in the Venetian Bedroom was made for James II around 1688. Together with its suite of matching armchairs and stools, it is attributed to royal joiner Thomas Roberts. Hung with high-quality Genoese fabrics, it is carved with the Lion and the Unicorn and James’s monogram, JR. It was acquired by Charles Sackville in 1695.
Conservation work has done much to improve the condition of the fragile fabrics and original gilding, which had suffered from unsympathetic work carried out by the Rural Industries Bureau in the 1960s.
Changes have been made to the bed throughout its history, but especially during the 19th century. An armchair and cushion in the Brown Gallery were upholstered with a matching embroidered silk, and an entry in the 1864 Knole inventory listing the bed’s silk counterpane has been struck out and annotated with ‘This has been cut up to cover chairs stools &c’. This may have been done by Victoria Sackville-West, Vita Sackville-West’s mother, in the late 19th century in an effort to prolong the life of fragile and fading furniture.
The King’s Room
The state bed in the King’s Room, decorated with cupids, bows, arrows and flaming hearts, was made for the marriage of the Duke of York (the future James II) to his second wife Mary of Modena in 1673. Hung with magnificent silver-gilt woven and embroidered French textiles, it may have been produced in Paris perhaps by Jean Peyrard, upholsterer to Louis XIV.
It was removed from Mary of Modena’s apartments at Whitehall Palace in 1694 by the 6th Earl of Dorset, together with its set of en suite armchairs and stools. The Duke of York’s wedding suit, which survives in the V&A collection, is designed to match the set. The bed was brought to Knole from Copt Hall in 1701 and has been on display in the King’s Room since 1730.
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Explore Knole's showrooms to see one of the rarest and most well-preserved collections of Royal Stuart furniture, paintings, objects and textiles – on show since 1605.
The Knole collection includes more than 300 paintings by 17th and 18th-century masters, many commissioned and collected by Sir John Frederick Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset.
Knole was built to impress. Come and explore the grandeur of its showrooms, the hidden secrets of the attics and the rooms Eddy Sackville-West called home in the Gatehouse Tower.