The Timeless Beauty of Klismos Chair

Many of you will know that we love unusual and interesting chairs. Due to their scale and form, they can be something more than just good furniture, adorning a space and becoming sculptural objects in a room in their own right.

One of our all-time favourite models is Klismos, a design that originates in ancient Greece and is distinguished by its spare, elegant lines and sweeping, curved rear stiles surmounted by a broad, deeply curved tablet, which supports the sitter's shoulders, or which may be low enough to lean an elbow on.

The Klismos (Greek: κλισμός) was a specifically Greek invention, without detectable earlier inspiration. No examples have survived from the ancient times and ancient sources give no specific description of its form, but the depictions of ancient seat furniture are familiar from painted pottery and bas-reliefs from the mid-fifth century BCE onwards. In epos, Klismos signifies a throne or an armchair; in Homer's Iliad, after Priam's appeal, Achilles rises from his thronos, raises the elder man to his feet, goes out to prepare Hector's body for decent funeral and returns, to take his place on his klismos.

This Attic red figure kylix depicts the teacher Linos seated on a Klismos chair, reading from a papyrus roll. His pupil Mousaios stands in front of his teacher reading from the writing wood tablets he holds in his left hand. Preserved in the Musée du Louvre, this school scene is one of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll. Athens, 450-400 BC.

Another great example of Attic pottery from 460–450 BC, depicting a woman seated on a Klismos while playing a barbitos. Preserved in The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

We can only guess what is going on in this scene, depicted on a 4th century BC Greek oinochoe, but one detail appears quite certain: it is highly unusual that a Klismos is rendered in three-dimensional aspect. The scale of the chair is impressive, as is its sculptural boldness. The oinochoe is on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Gallery 16.

Being avid admirers of the Greek cultural and philosophical tradition, the Romans adopted Greek architecture, design and fashion. Depicted seated on a Klismos chair is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (c. 270 – 208 BC), five times elected as consul of the Roman Republic. On display in Rome, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Emperors.

While the depictions of Klismoi on pottery are more numerous, they are usually quite stylised and might exaggerate the proportions. The surviving examples rendered in marble offer priceless information about the details of their construction and embellishment, such as these elegantly chamfered legs and stiles. This Roman marble statue dates to the 2nd cent. CE, it is fitted with the head of Helen, mother of Constantine the Great (dating to 320—325 CE), modelled seated on a finely detailed Klismos of relatively small scale. On display in Rome, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Emperors.

Another particularly sculptural depiction of Klismos, in terracotta, forms part of a funeral group of an unknown poet or musician. Circa 330–300 B.C. The Getty Museum.

The Klismos fell from general favour during the Hellenistic period and was only revived during the second, archaeological phase of European neoclassicism in the 18th century, when it first started to appear in historical paintings, and later in actual designs for furniture. The republican ideals of Greek and Roman antiquity corresponded well with the 18th century enlightenment and the aesthetics of the noble past, manifested in the style républicain, that appealed to the educated men of the late 1700's.

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789, a monumental canvas by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), depicting the Roman leader Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, contemplating the fate of his sons while seated on a grand scale Klismos. The artist commissioned some chairs from Georges Jacob in 1788, to be used as props in his historical paintings that required a high level of visual authenticity. Musée du Louvre.

An extremely curvaceous Klismos was designed in 1790 by a Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (1743 - 1809), one of the earliest examples of the Klismos Revival. The Danish Museum of Art & Design. SMK Foto

In England, it was the gentleman collector Thomas Hope who pioneered the Klismos form in his designs for Duchess Street house-museum in London. Klismos-inspired chairs were illustrated by Hope in several variations in Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807)

Another British furniture designer George Smith, apparently, owed a great deal of inspiration to Thomas Hope. He published his A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration in 1808 which became the first collection of designs for ordinary furniture in a fully developed Regency st

Two from a set of eight Klismos chairs formerly in the Entrance Hall at Harewood House, Yorkshire, probably supplied around 1817 by the ‘Royal’ cabinet-makers, Marsh & Tatham, to Edward ‘Beau’, Viscount Lascelles (1764-1814) as part of a Regency refurbishment, which included fitting up the hall in the Egyptian style. Retaining their original faux calamander finish with gilt accents. Sold at Christie's London, 13 December 2019, lot 107 (£35,000).

In America, the fashionable new style was pioneered by the architect and designer Benjamin Latrobe. During the James Madison administration (1809–17), Benjamin Latrobe designed a suite of painted furniture for the White House in the latest Grecian style. Although the suite was destroyed in a fire in 1814, drawings for it bearing Latrobe’s instructions to the Baltimore fancy chair makers John and Hugh Finlay still exist. Illustrated are two chairs from the workshop, from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (L) and The Winterthur Museum (R).

Ancient Greek aesthetics had their second revival among the connoisseurs of the early 20th century, being later reimagined by Art Deco.

One of the most pleasing manifestations of the second Greek revival is Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France, built by the architect-archeologist Emmanuel Pontremoli (1865 – 1956), who also designed amazing murals, mosaics and furnishings for the house that are inspired and in some cases, directly copied from antique sources. The design was loosely based on aristocratic homes on Delos – archeological excavations at the tiny island began in 1872.

The furniture designed by Pontremoli but was splendidly crafted by cabinetmaker Louis-François Bettenfeld.

Reflecting on the perfection of Greek works of art in 1812, George Smith wrote that every attention “was evidently given to produce a flowing and correct outline; and so to arrange the parts in masses, that the whole should appear clear and distinct . . . and it is this happy relief, this rejection of little parts, that gives their works so chaste and pleasing an effect.”

Possibly the most iconic interpretation of the epic Klismos was the creation of Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905–1976), a British-born architect and furniture designer.

In 1960, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings met Greek cabinetmakers Susan and Eleftherios Saridis, and, together, they created the Klismos line of furniture, which drew heavily on classical forms. It is still in production. Image courtesy of Christie's.

We have been fascinated by this timeless design anchored in antiquity for a long time, and have handled a number of rather interesting models. Below are just some of the most notable examples of Klismos-inspired chairs (and objects) that is currently available for purchase as well as from our archive.

A rare and unusual set of six mahogany 'Klismos' chairs of the Regency period, attributed to Gillows of Lancaster and London, circa 1810. The present chairs are virtually identical to those of a Longleat suite from Norton Hall, Northamptonshire, attributed to Gillows, sold Christie's London, 13 June 2002, lot 421 (£177,150).

A rare and unusual set of four mahogany 'Klismos' chairs of the early Regency period, in the manner of Marsh and Tatham, circa 1810.

An exceptional early 19th century Regency period open armchair, of well-shaped Klismos outline and rare generous proportions, attributed to George Oakley, England, circa 1810. Extremely rare with this particular form of front legs, splayed outwards to the sides and to the front. Derived from the ancient Greek 'Klismos' seats, this chair features exquisite brass inlay throughout, traditionally associated with the oeuvre of George Oakley (1773-1840), one of the most prominent London furniture-makers of the early 19th century.

A rare and important English early 19th century Officer's library or desk armchair of Klismos form, in mahogany. Circa 1800.

A fine French late 18th century Directoire period mahogany window seat, of great colour and rare generous proportions. Stamped G.Jacob, circa 1795. A handsome, timeless design. With its curved sabre legs at either end, this bench relates to the ancient Greek 'Klismos' seats, often seen depicted on Attic pottery.

A detail of a very decorative Grand Tour bronze amphora on a black marble socle base, decorated with very fine figure of classical Greek youth holding a libation patera while seated on a Klismos chair. Mounted as table lamp. France, 19th century.

An impressive, very decorative Grand Tour bronze amphora on a black marble socle base, decorated with very fine figure of classical Greek youth holding a libation patera while seated on a Klismos chair. Mounted as table lamp. France, 19th century.

Detail of one of a pair of very decorative antique bronze urns mounted as table lamps, decorated with very finely cast figures of classical Greek youths seated on Klismos chairs, inspired by ancient ceramics. French, late 19th century.

A very fine and elegant set of six mahogany 'Klismos' dining chairs of the Regency period, attributable to Gillows of Lancaster and London, England, circa 1805. Sold in 2019.

A very fine and elegant set of six mahogany 'Klismos' dining chairs of the Regency period, attributable to Gillows of Lancaster and London, England, circa 1805. Sold in 2019.

This set of Regency mahogany and ebony dining-chairs corresponds to a drawing in Gillows' Estimate Sketch Book for 22 July 1805. Sold in 2019.

One of a very fine and elegant set of eight mahogany 'Klismos' dining chairs of the Regency period, attributable to Gillows of Lancaster and London, circa 1810. Sold in 2019.

One of a fine set of six black lacquered and gilt-brass mounted dining chairs of Grecian-revival 'Klismos' form, by John Gee of London, circa 1810. Sold in 2019.

An rare and unusual fine pair of early Regency mahogany Klismos hall chairs of exceptional quality, attributed to Gillows of Lancaster and London, circa 1810. Sold in 2016

A very fine and unusual late George III - early Regency period hall chair of exceptional quality. English, c. 1800. The piece's extravagant design, superb quality, choice of timber suggest one the best furniture-makers of the era. Sold in 2017.

A fine Regency period simulated rosewood and rosewood library tub bergère, of Klismos form, attributed to William Wilkinson of Ludgate Hill, London. Sold in 2017.

Sources and further reading:

  1. Ana Gutierrez-Folch, The Neoclassical Klismos Chair: Early Sources and Avenues of Diffusion. The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar, Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, Volume 94, pp. 564–598. – Without doubt the most comprehensive research on the origins and development of Klismos.

  2. David Watkin and Philip Hewat-Jaboor, Thomas Hope: Regency Designer. Yale University Press, New Heaven, 2008. – A monumental, tremendously well-researched folio on one of the most extravagant designers of the 19th century.

  3. John Black, The Original Original and Its Prodigies. – A refreshing insight on the personalities behind the design.

  4. T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings and C. W. Pullin, Furniture of Classical Greece, New York, 1963.

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