Hamilton Inn sofa – the beginnings of Design Island?

No. 85

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The sophisticated design and high standard of workmanship makes the Hamilton Inn sofa unique among early Tasmanian colonial furniture. Little is known of the sofa’s provenance before the late 19th century, when it entered the Sonners family of Hamilton – residents of the original Hamilton Inn from 1912 until the 1990s. Its earliest confirmed owner was Albert Sonners (1860 - 1935).

The sofa’s maker, their client and the circumstances of production – including the date of manufacture – remain the subject of ongoing research. However, it appears likely that the sofa was made during the 1820s, when wealthy colonists started to build large houses of the kind implied by the scale of the Hamilton Inn sofa.

The sofa’s ambitious design would have been the height of fashion in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and is typical of the then fashionable, Greek-revival style. Pattern books became increasingly important as sources of ideas and promulgators of fashions from the late eighteenth century. Thomas Hope’s (1769–1831) Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, published in 1807, was the first to promote the Greek-revival style and may have indirectly influenced the design of the Hamilton Inn sofa. The double-ended sofa – with scrolled arms and ‘sabre’ legs – displays an aesthetic that is restrained and geometric, consisting of shaped and relieved panels, reeding and tablets of decorative veneers. The apparent simplicity emphasises the sofa’s elegant, curved and sweeping profile. Structural components made in Tasmanian hardwoods are disguised by either the upholstery or by cedar panels that also serve to disguise the attaching points for the upholstery.

Ultimately, the design and scale of the sofa records the rapid transmission of British fashions to the new island colony, as well as the early presence of highly skilled furniture makers in Tasmania.

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