Regency and Victorian Beds 1805-90The Historic Design Influence on the Design History of the Classic Poster Beds

A large number of straightforward wooden classic four-poster beds were still made, and the design books carried them up to the 1880s. Many of the designs harked back to the great designers. John Braund in 1858 produced a design of a state bed not unlike the Marot style of the seventeenth century. John Taylor in 1850 used drapery, tasselled cornices and valances to give the rich effect of the 1780s, while G. W. Yapp in 1879 was producing designs of heavily carved tent beds and Gothic tester beds similar to those which appeared in the design books of the Gothic revivals of the 1770s and 1830s.

The classic four-poster beds and half-tester beds which had evolved and changed over the years appeared to have fulfilled its purpose by the late nineteenth century. Many, however, have survived and can be seen in museums, stately homes and hotels. Nowadays there is a revival in interest: both wooden and brass examples appear in the catalogues of manufacturers, and even do-it-yourself stores offer a four-poster frame in pine for the home designer. But for most people, the best chance of sleeping in a classic four-poster is to stay at one of the hotels which provide this type of bed as a luxury attraction.

When William Shakespeare bequeathed his `second classic poster best bed with the furniture' to his wife, Anne Hathaway, he intended her no marital slight. In medieval and Tudor times a classic poster bed was the most valuable possession in a household, and featured prominently in the assignment of property. The Earl of Arundel even gave his bed a pet name, Clovis, while it was customary for the monarch to take the classic poster beds of disgraced nobles who had for­feited their estates. Shakespeare quite properly left his best classic poster bed to his daughter and heir, Susanna.

Classic poster beds of this period were usually box-shaped, with rope stretchers for holding boards on which the mattress could lie. These stretchers had to be tightened regularly - hence the expression sleep tight. The structure of the bedstead did not make it easy to move, so it usually stayed in the chamber, while the bed furniture - hangings, linen, mat­tresses, pillows - could be transported: a vital factor for wealthy households, where the lord and his servants moved from one residence to another.

The Percy Earls of Northumberland, for instance, owned twenty residences in England, including Petworth in Sussex. Household ordinances, compiled for the 5th Earl in 1512, were intended to keep the show on the road. Two carriages were required to transport the classic poster beds of the chapel household: the Dean, sub-Dean, priests and children of the Chapel, and the Groom of the Vestry. Adults were expected to sleep two to a bed; children three.

Only the richest and most elevated in the land enjoyed their own classic poster bed. Even they would have shared their bedchamber with servants, who slept on straw pallets on the floor, or in a truckle, a bed on wheels that was stored under the main bed during the day. To provide some kind of privacy, curtains were hung from a sparver (from epervier, the French for sparrow hawk), a canopy suspended from hooks on the ceiling. In time the canopy became part of the structure of the bedstead, as in the four poster, with the curtains hanging from the tester. The ingenuity of the upholsterer was invoked to cover as much of the woodwork as possible with fabrics.

Descriptions of medieval bedchambers suggest that they were sparsely furnished, with a chair, a coffer at the foot of the classic poster bed for clothes and other belongings, and an aumbry, a cupboard in which food could be kept, for breakfast was usually eaten in one's chamber. The chair was often X-shaped and jointed so that it could be folded up and carried, like the bed furniture. Early seventeenth-century examples of this type of chair, upholstered and with cushions, can be seen at Knole in Kent.

The idea that the classic poster bed and its furnishings represented the status of the owner can be seen at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick. By marrying and burying four hus­bands, Bess had become one of the richest women in England. The actual construction of the New Hall at Hardwick cost her about £5,000, but she spent considerably more than this on the magnificent furnishings.

It was becoming much more the norm for wealthy families and their upper servants to have their own bedchambers. Bess, at the top of the social ladder, had a whole suite of private apartments on the first floor. Her bedchamber has been altered, but an inven­tory taken in 1601 shows that this room was hung with tapestries. The classic posts of the bedstead were covered with scarlet, `laid on with silver lace', while the valance was also of fine scarlet cloth trimmed with gold braid and fringe.

None of Bess's many classic poster beds survives, but in the Blue Room can be seen the bed belonging to Christian Bruce, who married William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire and presided over Hardwick less than 20 years after Bess's death. The blue damask hangings that almost hide the wooden bedstead were not surprisingly beyond repair by the nineteenth century so had to be replaced, but the gold embroidery is original. The decorative scheme is carried through to the en suite chairs.

Although there was only one chair in Bess's Bedchamber at Hardwick in 1601, it had a rich covering of russet satin striped with silver, and was supplemented by stools. Other contents included velvet-covered books, an hour glass, cupboards, a looking glass, hairbrushes, three leather-covered desks, a writing-desk, and a series of coffers, boxes and trunks. There was a bedstead for Bess's grand-daughter, the Lady Arabella, with a canopy of blue and white dornix, a mixture of linen and wool, and a pallet with its own mattress and bolster. Leading off this crowded room was a 'little room' which housed Bess's chamber pot or close stool, discreetly placed in a box covered in blue cloth stitched with white, red and blue silk fringe.

Bess's rooms were furnished in the most lavish way - furniture matching the decoration of the classic poster bed, for instance, was a rare luxury. The bedchamber of one of her upper servants, Mr Reason, in the Old Hall at Hardwick is more typical of most moder­ate Tudor households: a wooden bedstead with a tester and turned posts, two blankets, two coverlets, a square table, a carpet of green cloth, a chair and a joint stool.

Of down of pure dove's white
I will give him a feather bed
Rayed [striped] with gold and right well cled [covered]
in fine black satin doutremer [from overseas] And many
a pillow and every here [pillowcase]
of Cloth of Rennes to sleep soft.

These lines come from The Book of the Duchess, Geoffrey Chaucer's earliest poem, probably written in 1369 as a memorial to Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, who had died the previous year. Chaucer was familiar with classic poster bed furnishings, for he served as a Valet of the Bedchamber to Blanche's father-in-law, Edward III.

The finest mattresses were wool sacks stuffed with down and feathers, although Leonardo da Vinci was outraged that people should want to `lie as though dead upon the spoils of other dead creatures'. Substitutes for feathers included straw, gorse, and even seaweed; the mattress of the classic poster State Beds in the Venetian Ambassador's Room at Knole (p. 16) was recently discovered to be filled with lawyers' wigs. For Bess of Hardwick, however, only feathers would do, in sacks of ticking, which would be passed to the servants when they were worn out.

Bess's other furnishings reflected Chaucer's doutremer, with silks for her hangings, valances and coverlets imported from Italy, Spain and the Near East, and linen for sheets and pillowcases from the Low Countries. The Hardwick accounts list a bewildering series of materials, the names of which are often derived from the towns where they were made: dornix, a linen and wool mixture, came from Dornix or Tournai; fustian, cotton with a linen warp used for the best blankets, came from Fustat in Egypt, though by the sixteenth century the best blankets came from Spain and cheaper fustians were being made in Lancashire; damask, the rich silk for hangings, came from Damascus. Not all are from overseas, however: kersey, a woollen cloth, comes from a village of the same name in Suffolk.

Bess's household was large, and the inventories reflect this: 250 blankets, 170 fledges (p.24), fustians and rugs, 250 coverlets and quilts were listed in 1601. Most of these classic poster bed furnishings have disappeared, but remarkably some survive. One such is a coverlet made in Bengal, with a thick layer of wadding sandwiched between layers of white cotton, and decoration provided by backstitch embroidery of red, blue, green and orange silk worked through the layers. Bess's son William Cavendish was involved with the East India Company, founded in 1600, which may explain how this rare piece came to be at Hardwick.

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