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John Bladwell's sofa bed at Holkham Hall, by Katherine Hardwick

Published by on 22 April 2021

Holkham Hall is lucky to have retained almost all of the mid-eighteenth century furniture that was commissioned for the house by Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1697-1759). One of the most interesting pieces is a sofa bed, which is presently located in the Green State Bedroom, upholstered in the same fantastically expensive Genoa velvet that adorns the other seat furniture, window curtains, and canopy of the state bed. It is unusual to find sofa beds of this period still in existence, though two examples are known at Nostell Priory and at Althorp.

Couch bed

                         Sofa bed currently in the Green State Bedroom

The design of the legs of the sofa, detailed with scales, acanthus leaves and scrolled feet, are identical to the set of armchairs and stools found in the room, forming part of a wider set of seat furniture, including armchairs, and both small and large sofas. This set has been attributed to the Norfolk based craftsman, James Lillie (d. 1760), known principally for his work at Holkham Hall.

Sofa leg

                                                Detail of Left leg

Sofa leg

                                                Detail of right leg

However, it appears the sofa bed may have come from a London-based furniture maker. Payment is noted in the Household Account Books for the week ending 21 May 1748, ‘to Mr Bladwell for a couch bed, 1 mattress, 3 pillows [sic] covers’, at a cost of £11. Further items in the same entry record that Bladwell was also paid for ‘3 check mattresses & packing’; ‘Mending & taking down furniture’; and ’43 yards of checked linen for chair covers’, bringing his total bill to £22.10 [Household Accounts, A/29 f. 49r ]. It seems likely that the Mr Bladwell mentioned in the accounts was one John Bladwell (1724-1768), who is known to have supplied furniture to the Duke of Bedford, the Marquess of Tavistock and Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh.

Holkham

              Household Account Books for the week ending 21 May 1748

As a London-based craftsman working for other prestige clients, it is possible that the sofa bed supplied by Bladwell in 1748 was used as the model by Lillie when carving the rest of the seat furniture; household accounts record payment to Lillie in 1758 for ‘4 small settees for the Salloon’ and for ‘a large sopha for the Draw. Room’, though charged at only £3 and £1 respectively, it suggests that they may not have been finished items [Christine Hiskey, Holkham: the Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, (2016), p. 225].

Tracing the sofa bed through historic inventories provides more questions than answers. The earliest inventory of the Hall, drawn up in 1760 shortly after Thomas Coke’s death, lists the Green State Bedroom as being unfurnished. Instead, ‘a couch bed, crimson and white check’d cotton furniture’ is described in a Dressing Room in Chapel Wing [Household Inventory 4]. It appears that this may have been a second, plainer sofa bed, as by 1774, it had been moved to a Servants Room attached to the North State Bedchamber, where it was described as a ‘couch bed and its white check furniture’ [Household Inventory 9].

Another inventory of the same date, written by Thomas Coke’s widow, Lady Margaret, suggests that this bed had been moved from the family’s London house in Russell Street [Household Inventory 7]. The description of ‘check’d’ furnishings on this sofa bed matches the linen provided by Bladwell in his 1748 bill, although the provision of material does not necessarily mean that it is was used on the furniture he supplied.

A more ornate couch bed appears in an inventory of 1774, listed in Lady Leicester’s Bedroom in Chapel Wing, where it is described as 'a couch bed, gilt frame, a feather bed bolster, pillow, mattress, 4 blankets and white quilt, yellow check curtains and cover for ye couch [Household Inventory 9]'. These coverings, described elsewhere as yellow damask, had been made up from material which had formally covered the walls of the room, as noted by Lady Margaret in her personal inventory of the furniture at Holkham [Household Inventory 7]. However, at the same date, ‘a sofa, 2 bolsters, 2 pillows, covered with varigated [sic] velvet, gilt frame’ was listed in the Green State Bedroom [Household Inventory 9]. This ‘varigated velvet’ is the same that is used on the chairs and bed curtains in this room. It cost Thomas Coke £3.9s a yard, making it the most expensive fabric in the house [John Cornforth, ‘A Georgian patchwork’, Studies in the History of Art, Vol 25: Symposium Papers X: The Fashioning and Furnishing of the British Country House, (1989), p. 159]. A total of 257 yards was ordered, bringing the cost to over £800, more than Coke paid for either the monumental painting by Rubens, or his treasured Roman statue of Diana [John Cornforth, Early Georgian Interiors, (2004), p. 318]. Leather covers are also listed as being provided for the chairs and the sofa, showing the desire to protect such a valuable fabric. This raises the question of whether the current sofa bed was recovered in the Genoa velvet at a later date, or whether it was misdescribed in the 1774 inventory as a simple sofa.

Wallpaper

                                          Genoa velvet upholstery

To confuse things further, a third couch bed was listed in a ‘Ladies maid’s room, rustic floor’ in Chapel Wing. This too seemed to be a plain bed and was described as having ‘blue and white check’ coverings. Happily, payment is recorded for this piece in the same inventory; it cost Lady Leciester £3.16s, a good deal less than the bed supplied by Bladwell, confirming that it was used for servants and not in the State Rooms [Household Inventory 7].

By Katherine Hardwick, Holkham Hall Collections Co-Ordinator