History of Four Poster Beds

On mahogany four poster bedsteads of the first half of the century a panelled back was again introduced, cabriole legs ending in lion-paw feet and posts with vase-shaped plinths taking the place of the silk-covered uprights. The delicate inlay in Fig. 46 contrasts with the decorative figure of the Cuban mahogany in the back and with the boldly carved ornament of frieze and cornice; while Fig. 45 is designed on archi­tectural lines, the frieze carved with Vitruvian Scroll resting on Corinthian capitals. The cornice and valance still continued to be designed in relation to each other, the former under rococo influence being carved in a flamboyant style and sometimes covered with velvet or silk, a process demanding a high degree of skill, as cornices became more and more elaborate (Fig. 49). In some cases the silk covering was abandoned, the mahogany woodwork being either left in the natural state or gilt. The tester and back were festooned and fluted in various materials, trimmed with galons and fringes, while the curtains of velvet, flowered brocade, or embroidered linen were arranged to show the carved mahogany posts.

Of a design for an immensely ponderous State four poster bed with allegorical figures, military trophies, birds and other fan­tastic devices, Chippendale remarks that he submits it " to the judicious and candid for their approbation. There are found magnificence, proportion and harmony." He is confident that it will produce an extremely grand effect, but "a workman of genius" is required to comprehend the design. Fashion demanded many varieties, including field beds (see p. 67) and the type termed" French." Among the principal conceits in their Universal System (1759-63), Ince and Mayhew show a four poster bed designed "to appear as a soffa, with a fixt canopy over it; the curtains draw on a rod: the cheekes and seat take to open the bedstead".

Japanned four poster bedsteads were also in demand, and a fantastic example from Badminton, probably made by Chippendale for the fourth Duke of Beaufort, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Fig. 51). It is in the Chinese style with a pagoda-shaped tester, and gilt dragons on scrolled finials ornament the four corners. This form of tester hung with bells is illustrated in the Director (1754), cluster columns being sometimes favoured as an alternative for the posts of these " Chinese four poster beds." The original curtains, which were probably of painted Chinese silk, and the ivory bells have disappeared. The room which contained this bedstead was completely furnished in the Oriental taste.

Constant allusions in contemporary correspondence to four poster beds of red damask and moreen suggest that this was the favourite colour. In the Guide (1788) Hepplewhite writes that the hangings may be executed of almost every stuff which the loom produces, but white dimity gives "an effect of elegance and neatness truly agreeable". Printed cottons and linens he held very suitable; but in State rooms, where a "high degree of elegance" was wanted, Hepplewhite recommends silk or satin, figured or plain, and velvet with a gold fringe. If these materials were of a dark pattern, a green silk lining " may be used with good effect," while the valances on "Elegant four poster beds" should always be gathered full, and when so arranged are known as petticoat valances.

By 1775 the four poster bed cornice had become simple in outline, straight or serpentine, and there were often vase finials at the four corners; the surface was now carved, carved and gilt, or painted in colours on satinwood or mahogany, the lower member being often fancifully shaped. The cheaper ex­amples, made of beechwood, were painted throughout. The posts of important four poster beds became comparatively simple with the introduction of the classical style and the curtains were far less voluminous and costly. With State four poster beds, however, the old extravagant fashion still prevailed, and at Chats­worth, Blenheim and Osterley specimens exist, some with domed ceilings and festooned curtains and valances.

Even so homely a queen as the wife of George III had the beautiful 4 poster bed made for her that now stands in the Queen's Presence Chamber at Hampton Court Palace. Here a gilt cornice in the classical embroidered with garlands of flowers, brilliant in colour and tasteful in design, the back and quilt being of cream satin decorated with similar embroidery. It is interesting to notice that the old-fashioned cantoin, or cantonniere, holders are still retained at the corners of the valances. They held the small extra curtains that excluded any possible draught at the foot of the four poster bed, those to correspond at the head being termed "bonegraces". All the Hampton Court Palace four poster beds possess their original feather mattresses, sometimes three or four in number. They are quite thin, and covered in fine cream satin, quilted and finished with small tuffets of green or rose silk; having been preserved from the light and dust, they are still in perfect condition. On the top of these small mattresses was placed, by immemorial custom, the feather bed, and the bedding was completed by blankets, sheets and a counterpane. Pillows were small and resembled cushions, being often supported by wedge-shaped bolsters.

In the Guide, Hepplewhite commends a four poster bed with a stuffed head-board above the pillows, on which arms or other ornament could be carved in high relief, gilt, and burnished, thus affording "a high finish to the appearance of beds". Sheraton writes of French beds that "square bolsters are now often intro­duced, with margins of various colours stitched all round."

Embroidered linen is minutely described in the Walton Inventory drawn up for Sir William Fairfax in 1624, and by the end of Charles II's reign cotton sheets were in regular use.

The classical style began to affect all varieties of furniture shortly after 1760, but in its initial phase it seems to have had little influence on the design of four poster bedsteads. One of the most grotesque of eighteenth-century examples dates from about this time and is in the State bedroom at Kedleston. On the state four poster bed a palm-tree appears from root to crown, the curv­ing branches sweeping above and below the valances of the tester. The palm torcheres (candle stands) in the same room, three large mirrors, and the gilt suite that accom­panies these pieces are all treated with the palm motive, which is strongly reminiscent of some of the decoration of the 4 poster beds at Spencer House which John Vardy was carrying out about 1760.

A Mahogany four poster Bed  painted tester bearing the badge of the Prince of WaIes. c. 1785. (l1artlehurY Castle, Worcestershire.) For Osterley, Adam designed a State four poster bed of satin wood inlaid with green laurel ornament and upholstered in green silks and velvets (Fig. 56), the drawing for which is in the Soane Museum (see ADAM, R.. Fig. 4). This four poster bed was adversely criticised by Horace Walpole in a letter to the Rev. W, Mason of July 16, 1778, on the ground that it was too like a modern head-dress, "for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. "What". lie exclaims, “ would VitFUViUS think of a dome decorated by a milliner'?" The alternate tabs of the valance are worked with the Child crest (on a rock proper an eagle rising, argent holding itr its hook an adder proper):the entablature pro­jecting at the corners is crested with antefixes and supported on columns painted with vertical stripes and lines of husk.

Throughout the eighteenth century the hangings of the four poster bed continued to be carefully thought out in relation to the decorative scheme of the room, the cornices and valances of the window hangings being made to match the bed. Lady Elizabeth Smithson (later Duchess of Northumberland) writes to her mother, the Countess of Hertford, in August 1740 from Stanwick: "I must now speak of my bedchamber; my four poster bed in cotton flowered with large natural flowers lined with grass green lutestring with fluted posts . . . the window curtains, chairs, arm-chair and Peche Mortel and the Hang­ings are all of the same". After a visit to Lord Bite's house in 1774, Lady Mary Coke informs a correspondent that "almost all the rooms are hung with light green plain papers, which show the pictures to great advantage. The chairs, beds, etc., chiefly satin, light greens and white, which has a very good effect". She adds that the apartment in which she slept was hung with white satin, and so afraid was she that her maid's hands might not be clean that she lay with one side of the bed curtains open.

Not all great houses possessed four poster beds deemed worthy of memorable occasions. When George III and Queen Charlotte visited Wilton in January, 1779, Dr. Thomas Eyre, the Earl of Pembroke's Chaplain, writes to his heir, Lord Herbert, then at St. Petersburg: "To accommodate their Majesties with a good four poster bed, 1 made interest with Mr. Hill, Mr. Beck­ford's Steward, to lend us his superb State four poster Bed, which we brought to Wilton, slung on the Carriage of a Waggon, without the least damage, at no small expense, but what signify's money, when we were to entertain the Princes of the Land". But “Beckford"s State four poster bed was not used by the King despite the trouble and expense of obtaining it­. “When we had bustled our hearts out for a week before the time, lo, and behold! When they arrived, they brought a snug double Four Poster Tent Bed, had it put up in the Colonnade Room, where the State four poster bed was already placed, in a crack, and slept, for anything I know to the contrary, extremely quiet and well. . . .Letters and Diaries of Henry, 10th Earl of Pembroke, edited by Lord Herbert, 1939".

In Hepplewhite's and Sheraton's books some exaggerated designs are given in no way representative of the main out­put. Sheraton devotes much space to a description of the allegorical figures on the posts and cornice of a State four poster bed. Its purpose was to exhibit emblematically the design of civil government-- the front side shows the nature of our government, the dome the principles which support it, and the back side the way in which government is managed. He adds, however, that "upon the whole a four poster bed of this kind is not likely to be executed except under the munificence of a Royal Order". Alcove and elliptic beds are also shown in the trade catalogues of the time, while the culmination of Sheraton's bizarre fancy is found in what he terms "a summer four poster bed in two compartments. The de­scription states that this eccentricity was designed to enable a nobleman or gentleman and his lady to sleep separately in hot weather". The passage up the middle, which is about 22 inches in width, likewise affords an easy access to the servants. He assigns an elliptic bed, with dome and mattress both of that shape, to a lady "as fancifulness seems most peculiar to the taste of females".

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