History of Four Poster Beds

The type in common use in the last quarter of the eighteenth century is well represented in the Guide (1785) and Drawing Book (1791-94). The slender four poster bed posts were fluted and carved with wheat ears or husks and the lunette-shaped frieze inlaid with shells and paterie, in coloured woods or painted with ribbons and garlands of flowers. Sometimes a scalloped edging of wood heads the valances, which were formed of swags of silk or other material disposed, says Sheraton, "To hang easy" Festoons of cords with large tassels were favourite decora­tion, while it was usual for the curtains to be drawn up by pulleys and tied to the posts. At the corners of the tester plumes or vase-shaped finials were often employed, as in earlier times.

At Hartlebury Castle a four poster bed obtained by Bishop Hurd, probably with a view to a visit from his former pupil, the Prince of Wales, has a painted tester with the three ostrich feathers amid scrollwork below the serpen­tine cornice ; while another example of this period at Chatsworth has the frieze decorated with rose trails and the festooned valances of painted wood advocated in the Guide.

Four poster beds of the early nineteenth century were designed in a version of the Empire style, ostensibly based on classical precedents, and resulting from "the reciprocal exchanges of British and French taste". Many varieties are represented in George Smith's Designs for Household Furniture (1808) and Ackermann's Repository. The turned posts, which had lost the former elegance, were of mahogany or rosewood enriched with `'Grecian ornaments" bronzed or gilt, while chased metal appliqués were also employed. The tester was often dome-shaped and the hangings of silk or calico in primary colours, embroidered, or with borders of velvet, and liberally trimmed with lace or fringe . "Taste­ful simplicity" was proclaimed as the ideal, and there was an "abandonment of that profusion of drapery which has long been fashionable". An attempt was made to provide four poster beds suited to the particular circumstances of the individual, and Smith shows one intended for a military officer orna­mented with “war trophies" and having a cornice formed of spears. In Fig. 61, a bed said to have been used by Nelson on his visit to Fonthill in 1801, with anchors surmount a frieze decorated with wreaths and trails- of bay leaves. The cable turning of the posts is generally associated with George IV's reign, but this type of twist is found on a casket which was presented to Queen Caroline in 1813 (see Boxes AND CASKETS, Fig. 38). Smith also produced a design for a very ambitious Gothic four poster bed, lavishly ornamented with heraldic shields; but remarks that this style is "applicable only in a real Gothic mansion, if otherwise used it would be highly improper and out of taste".

Towards 1820 most elegantly furnished sleeping-rooms are stated to have been "fitted up in the French style", an essential part of the scheme being a four poster bed of couch form below a canopy attached to the wall, which supported the curtains. Many four poster beds of this kind were imported, but the taste was short-lived, and the majority of English examples seem to have been destroyed or transformed into couches in Victorian times.

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