History of Four Poster Beds

For more than three centuries the "Great Bed of Ware" has been celebrated on account of its gigantic proportions. In 1596, within a few years of its construction, it was men­tioned in the Poetical Itinerary of Prince Ludwig of Anhalt­Ki3hten as among the memorable curiosities in the neighborhood of the capital; while that its fame soon became proverbial is proved by the famous reference in Twelfth Night to a sheet "big enough for the bed of Ware in England". Possibly made for Sir Henry Fanshaw (b. 1569) of Ware Park, a notable collector of works of art, it was apparently already at The White Hart in 1612, and subse­quently at other inns in Ware, until it was removed in 1869 to Rye House, Hoddesdon (see The Great Bed of Ware, W. A. Thorpe, Country Life, August 15, 1941). Throughout its history it has been the subject of many jests and allusions by dramatists, poets, travelers and antiquarians. In the History of Hertfordshire (1700) Sir Henry Chauncey relates that on one occasion "six citizens and their wives came from London" and slept in the Great Bed.

Apart from its gigantic proportions, the bed is a fine specimen of the lavishly enriched Elizabethan four poster bed type, despite the rough usage it has experienced in the course of its long  history. The back is divided by terminal figures flanked by columns with composite capitals, two grotesque satyrs in profile flanking the outer stiles. Within round arches are panels of inlay in various coloured woods, representing the elevation of a Tudor house with swans on ornamental water in the foreground; this decoration, which closely resembles the perspective inlay in contemporary overmantels, being adapted from designs by Jan Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604), a Dutch commercial artist, whose engravings circulated widely in England. The richly carved four poster bed posts rest upon arcaded canopies supported on pillars with square plinths below. The cappings have been mutilated to enable the bed to be placed within a low room; while the original cornice has been replaced by a copy, probably about a century ago. The tester still retains traces of colour decoration, but many of the panel mouldings have been renewed (Fig. 14).

A good specimen of the more restrained architectural style is shown in Fig. 15. It answers to one listed in the Ingatestone Inventory (of 1600) "four poster beds of walnutree with turned and fluted posts". That in spite of their perishable nature such beds existed in considerable numbers in great Eliza­bethan houses is sufficiently proved by the Red Book still preserved at Lumley Castle, which gives walnut in the ratio of about one to three of those in oak in that enormous aggregation of furniture belonging to Lord Lumley; twenty ­three four poster beds of "Walnutree and Markatree" being included in the inventory. The wood is light in tone and suggests that the bed was not varnished after completion. It was originally at Astley Corbet in Shropshire, and bears the Corbeau crest of the Corbets. The frieze is inlaid with the initials J.C. and the date 1593.

In a list of the contents of Kenilworth Castle, drawn up after the death of Robert, Earl of Leicester, in 1588, many "four poster bed stedes of walnuttree" are listed with hangings of satin, velvet, silk and "clothe of gould tysshue", in some instances magnificently "embrothered" with devices in­cluding the bear and ragged staff and "my Lorde's armes". The woodwork was richly carved, varnished, parcel gilt, "all painted over with crymson and silvered", or "painted very faire". One, of which the posts or "pillars" were red, had "five plumes of coloured feathers, garnished with bone lace and spangells of gould and silver standing in cuppes knitt all over with goulde silver and crymson silke"-an early instance of a kind of ornament which became normal on the testers of state beds in the following century. Several Field bedsteads were made "toppe fashion", probably resembling in shape the "waggon tilt" canopied bedsteads of medieval times. The abundance of walnut furniture in the Earl of Leicester's possession is indicated by the fact that even his "slope little bedsted for the fielde" was made of that wood. This variety, apparently designed for use in war, continued to be made for traveling and other pacific purposes until a much later date.

The marquetry decoration of the back is a notable feature in four poster Tudor beds, and when coarse in execution serves to emphasise the profusion of carving. The bog oak, holly, box, poplar and sycamore, almost the only available inlays, did not (even before time had sobered them) permit of more than a restricted scale of chromatic effect. Inlay of excep­tional excellence is found on all the flat surfaces of the Astley Hall four poster bed example (Fig. 16), the monsters of tiger shape in the cornice being, perhaps, the only instance where that member is enriched with animal forms.

The four poster bed stock, panelled ends and pedestals are much restored, but the upper portion (Fig. 18) shows this bed to have been one of the most notable of its age. The corbelled-out cornice, the tester with its wealth of mouldings and inlay of floral sprigs and stars (Fig. 17), the fanciful elaboration of the panels, delicate vine tendrils and faceted ornament of the posts, contrasting with the bolder carving in the head, all con­tribute to the magnificence of the effect. Queen Elizabeth had one of these marquetry four poster beds at Whitehall, described by Paul Hentzner in 1578 as "ingeniously composed of woods of different colours".

In the Great Bed of Ware four poster bed incorporated painting and inlay are combined in the decoration, and another remarkable specimen of this treatment is given in Figs. 20 and 21. The back is arcaded in the upper stage, and has shell-headed niches below; while at the sides are pierced scrolls surmounted by obelisks of architectural character.

The four post bed panelled tester is supported at the foot by fluted posts of admirable proportions, which are set upon tall panelled plinths. In the centre of the upper tier of panels are the arms of Cooper with crest and mantling, between the arms of Keynes (left) and Cooper (right). Various coats of arms blazoned in colours occupy the re­maining panels of the head-board and tester, while the rest of the structure is lavishly painted with floral sprays, foliage and berried trees. The decoration is carried out on a dark background, while the plain portions are of light 11var­nished oak. The original owner of the bed, which is said to have come from Chewton Mendip House, Somerset, has not been identified. A rare survival from the painted furniture fashionable under James I, it recalls a four post bed entered in the Earl of Northampton's inventory of 1614 as "Painted with flowers and powdered with golde with the arms of my Lord Northampton upon the head".

Among the contents of Northampton House, near Charing Cross, were several pieces of furniture painted in imitation of Oriental lacquer; and thus long anticipating the general inception of the vogue. In the Bed Chamber was "a Field four poster bed stead of china worke black and silver branched with silver", the head being again decorated with Lord North­ampton's arms. In the following year Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, "the father of Virtu in England", writes to the Countess at Arundel House, asking her to buy a blue quilt which "will serve ye four post bede of Jappan exceedinge well and fitt it for ye coller". The Household Books of Lord Howard of Naworth record a payment in 1621 "To Mr. Hesketh for gilding a bedstead, drawing Mrs. Elizabeth and Marye's pictures".

A curious combination of functions. Though no example decorated with gilding survives, the Earl of Leicester's inventory and other Elizabethan and early Stuart domestic records suggest that in great establish­ments there was a fashion for such four poster bedsteads. One at Windsor Castle described as "very faire" with "4 (posts) bed pillars and a headpiece of walnuttree gilt with all furniture belonging" was sold for £40, a very large sum at the time, by order of the Council of State after Charles I's execution. The display of heraldry, so common in that age, and denounced by Philip Stubbes in his Anatomic of Abuses (1583), is seen again in Figs. 22 and 23. On the centre of the headboard of the four poster bed are the arms of James I with the initials J.R.; the shield to the left bearing the badge of Henry, Prince of Wales, and that to the right the arms of Frederick, Count Palatine of the Rhine. These shields date the bed within a year, as Frederick married the Princess Elizabeth, James's eldest daughter, in 1613; while Henry died in 1612, and Charles l was not created Prince of Wales until four years later. Flanking the Royal Arms are caryatides symbolising Peace and Plenty, with terminals on the outer stiles and grotesques at the angles.

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