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by Wendell Garrett
|From the Middle Ages onwards, great attention has been bestowed upon beds, with householders spending more money on their construction and decoration then on any other type of furniture. In probate wills, "the best bed" often headed the list of legacies. The canopied and posted bed was charged with social significance and carried potent social messages; the state bed elaborated with rich hangings was used for ceremonies as well as for sleeping.
Inside an aristocratic house of the 17th or 18th centuries, the bedchamber became a place for reception as well as for rest. John Evelyn, attending Charles II one morning in 1683, recorded in his Memoirs following his majesty "thro' the gallerie into the Dutchesse of Portsmouth 's dressing-roome within her bed-chamber, where she was in her morning loose garment, her maids combing her [hair], newly out of bed, his Majesty and the gallants standing about her." A great-canopied French bed, decorated with ostrich feathers, of about 1775-1780, is on exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A similar bed sold in the Karl Lagerfeld Collection at Christie's in Monaco on April 29th for 470,000 French Francs ($65,826).
When nobles and princely testators bequeathed their beds, they thought primarily of the costly hangings and upholstery fabrics. These were an integral part of the decoration of the room, and the apparel of the bed with "all hangyngs belongyng to ye saide bed and chamber" is a frequent form of such bequests.
In early royal palaces an officer was placed in charge of the beds, and in the Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York, queen of Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509), there are frequent allusions to the "grome of the beddes" and to sums paid to him for superintending the removal of this part of the Queen's furniture on her progress through the country.
In these early great houses there were beds in almost every room, including the parlor. The herald who attended Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, into Scotland to marry King James, relates that in the Great Chamber at Holyrood where the banquet was served after the wedding "there was also a rich Bed of State."
Beds were commonly used as couches and seats in the daytime, and the curtains, suspended by rings, were drawn up by cords. The tall, slender upholstered beds of the Stuart era were magnificent and enormously costly, with the testers and cornices covered with the same material as the curtains.
In the great houses of the 17th century, the height of bedsteads often reached the ceiling if the loftiest room. A carved wooden cornice was introduced, covered with the same material as the valances and curtains. The four corners of the tester were generally surmounted by vase-shaped finials holding large bunches of ostrich plumes. Similar ornaments were also fashionable in France.
At Knole Park in Kent, the state bed in the Venetian Room is upholstered in cut Genoese velvet (1685-1688). In her Diary of 1779, Fanny Burney records a visit to Knole and gives a description of this state room. The curtains, valances and tester were all composed of cloth of gold lined with brilliant coral taffeta, all closely embroidered in a floral design in gold, silver, and colored silks. The bed bears the crowned cypher of James II and even at that time, its value was 7,000 pounds.
The canopied French bed in the Louis XVI style was placed in an alcove, and was often embellished with fanciful draperies and plumes on the canopy or pavilion. The upholsterer played the triumphant role in their construction. Decorative curtains and hangings gained in importance while a variety of canopies were in use.
The most prevalent type of French bed was the traditional lit à colonnes (four-poster bed), which was always popular in the provinces. After 1700, small, better-heated rooms allowed the introduction into fashionable interiors of the lit à la duchesse with a canopy that had supports at the head of the bed unencumbered.
Other beds had two or three enclosed sides and were often placed in niches or alcoves with the long side attached to the wall. The term lit à la polonaise (Polish bed), frequently used in the 18th century, described such beds when the uprights that supported the canopy consisted of curved iron bars hidden by curtains. The type of bed that had curved scrolling ends without any visible columns was termed lit à la turque (Turkish bed).
The type of bed that was placed obliquely and had an independent canopy attached to the wall from behind was designated as a lit à l'italienne (Italian bed), but also termed by various ornament designers chaire à prêcher (preacher's chair) or à la romaine (Roman). The daybed usually had a headboard and resembled a small-scale French bed without canopy or curtains.
The great beds of the past had a weight and consequence that did not belong to other furniture. By the renaissance it became customary for royalty to give audience in the bed chamber, and the state bed elaborated with rich hangings and costly trifles assumed ceremonial importance.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.