I can’t remember when I first became aware of the existence of chaises longues, but it must have been when I was quite young. At that time, I didn’t even know it was a French expression as I hadn’t begun to study that language. But because Sweden had appointed a Frenchman as their king in the early 19th century (long story, but they invited one of Napoleon’s generals to become king and he accepted) there are a lot of words in Swedish that are borrowed from French. This was one of them and I knew it under the weird Swedish spelling – schäslong.
What I clearly do remember is that from the moment I first saw one, I wanted to own one, desperately!
Traditionally, the definition of chaise longue (according to Wikipedia) is “an upholstered sofa in the shape of a chair that is long enough to support the legs”. That description doesn’t really do it justice though. There is just something so elegant about this piece of furniture, decadent even – a half sofa/half bed you could lazily lounge on during the day, whiling away the hours reading or daydreaming. Most of the ones I’d seen were opulent, with a scrolled or curved end on one side and beautifully turned legs with castors. I particularly loved the Victorian ones with buttoned down upholstery in opulent fabrics, usually velvet or brocade. They seemed to be the ultimate piece of luxury furniture!
This type of day bed has existed at least since the 16th century and were invented so that rich ladies could rest during the day without having to go to bed. It could be that they were around as long ago as in ancient Egypt as some sort of long chairs have been found by archaeologists. And of course the Romans lay down to eat their formal dinners and had something called a lectus – I’m not sure that counts as a chaise longue as it wasn’t upholstered, but still …
Having gone down a research rabbit hole, I found out that there are actually three different types of chaise longue:-
The duchesse brisée (or “broken duchess” – why it was called this I have no idea!) which is when the chaise longue consists of two or three parts; either a chair and a long footstool, or two chairs with a stool in between them that can be pushed together to form a whole.
The récamier, named after a French lady by that name whose portrait by the painter Jacques Louis David is famous. (She was Jeanne Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier known as Juliette, and she hosted a literary/political salon in Paris). He painted it in the year 1800 and to me it is a very appealing painting that really showcases the Empire style in fashion at the time. This type of chaise is more like a lit bateau (boat bed), with no back, symmetrical sides, upholstered and intended for a sitting room and not as a bed.
And finally the méridienne, which seems to be the type I would call a chaise longue – a sofa with an asymmetrical back and a headrest, or one end higher than the other and possibly nothing at the foot end at all. These were apparently very popular in France during the Regency era and the name comes from the French word for “the middle of the day” when you would presumably have a little nap or siesta.
These day beds appear to have been status symbols and therefore many of them are made out of luxurious and expensive materials, and some are very fancy indeed. I think they can be found in most stately homes and I always pause to admire them whenever I see one. The Victorians were extremely enamoured of the chaise longue and it became something everyone wanted or aspired to own. The deep-buttoned upholstered ones I love myself were beloved of them, although they liked all sorts of styles, including pretend Tudor/Jacobean ones.
Chaises longues might bring to mind illness (or just laziness?) – when I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, I pictured Fanny Price’s aunt, the hypochondriac Lady Bertram, reclining on her chaise longue all day long with her little pet pug in attendance. It also conjures up visions of psychoanalysis – lying on a daybed while some psychologist sits behind you as you share what’s in your troubled mind. Sigmund Freud had one and you can see his “psychoanalytic couch” at the Freud Museum in London.
By the 1930s though, they had gone out of fashion and the three-piece suite became the norm in our living rooms instead. If I’d had the money (which sadly I didn’t) I could have bought an antique chaise longue during the 1970s for less than £100 ($140) as no one wanted them. Now you can pay ten times that amount, but my dream came true a couple of years ago when I was lucky enough to finally find one on eBay for much less! (I was scrolling the site late at night when I couldn’t sleep and almost woke my husband up at 3am to tell him I’d found the perfect chaise longue – fortunately for him I waited until morning and it was still available then).
But why would one need a chaise longue these days? I don’t usually have time to loll around on a sofa all day and I never take naps. Besides, they are not designed for sleep – you’d have to do it half sitting up which doesn’t really work. For me, it was all about aesthetics – I just wanted one for the visual impact it would give any room I put it in. I imagined I would also use it for reading, but having tried sitting on one, I found that it wasn’t actually as comfortable as I’d thought.
When I became an author, I had ridiculous visions of lying on my chaise longue surrounded by small dogs and dictating stories to a secretary, à la Dame Barbara Cartland – I was sure I’d seen a photo of her with her Pekingese on her lap and with some poor woman seated next to her clutching paper and pen. Obviously this was a pipe dream, but just for fun I recreated the scene with my own dogs a while back – not that they were very co-operative, but that’s Tibetan spaniels for you!
Do you like chaises longues? And have you ever bought a piece of furniture just because you fell in love with it, even though you didn’t need it? I’d love to know!