History of Four Poster Beds


KING HENRY VIII 1509–1547      QUEEN MARY I 1553–1558

The Period of Oak Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)

The great four poster beds of the time had a weight and consequence which did not belong to other furniture. They were, apart even from the valuable hangings, costly. Arcaded decoration and pilasters in the form of ter­minal figures often divided the head-board of the bed into formal compartments. After about 1560, substantial foot posts, with heavy bulbs supported on massive, free-standing pedestals and plinths of square sec­tion, were a distinguishing feature. The exposed woodwork of head­board, posts and tester provided a field for the display of a wealth of boldly carved ornament. Four Poster Beds of this description remained fashionable in England for some years after the death of Elizabeth. Uncurtained low or 'stump beds of a traditional type were made for common use. These were severely practical and were constructed without posts or ceiling. A very clear picture of a primitive but well-ordered dormitory for the sick is given in a panel painted by the Master of Alkmaar in the early six­teenth century and entitled Visiting the Sick from the Seven Works of Charity in the Rijks museum, Amsterdam. It is noticeable that the beds are lacking in ornament of any description and that the head-boards are formed apparently of nailed planks. Nevertheless low four poster beds were frequently carved with some elaboration.

The Early Walnut Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) Period

The four poster beds made for the Royal palaces and for statements in the houses of the nobility were excessively expensive, particularly when one considers the high purchasing power of money at that time. It had become customary for Royalty to give audience in the bedchamber. Ladies, too, held receptions whilst in four poster bed. John Evelyn, attending Charles II one morning in 1683, recorded following his Majesty 'thro' the gallerie ... into the Dutchesse of Porthsmouth's dressing-roome within her four poster bed-chamber, wherein her morning loose garment, her maids combing her newly out of her bed, his Majesty and the gallants standing about her... The four poster bedchamber as a consequence was filled with rich furniture and many costly trifles. Thelight and satirical commentary in verse on the fashions of her day entitled A Voyage to Marryland, the Ladies’ Dressing Room is informative in this respect.*

You furnish her apartment
With Moreclack tapestry, damask bed,
Or velvet richly embroidered:
Branches,t brassero,t cassolets,
A cofre fort, and cabinets,
Vasas of silver, porcelan, store
To set, and range about the floor:
The Chimney furniture of plate
(For iron's now quite out of date).

The Walnut Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) Period

By the time of William III the woodwork and uphol­stery of fashionable four poster beds were almost indistinguishable (Pl. 17). The slender Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) posts, of oak or beech, and the wood­work of the back and tester were covered with material - often silk damask or figured velvet, which were used also for the full-tasselled fringed four poster bed covers and hangings; while trimmings of silver added to the general richness of appear­ance. (The state four poster bed of William III at Hampton Court Palace is hung with crimson velvet, trimmed with silver galon). Care was devoted to the arrangement of the folds of draperies. The value of four poster beds, depending almost entirely on the materials with which they were covered, was often excessive. 'Pontadre' (Pintado) and 'Cantoon' (Canton) stuffs would seem to have been popular, and woollen materials, serge, camlet and mohair, were all employed on occasion. Because of the increased height of rooms - and they were `soe lofty its enough to breake ones neck to looke on them', wrote Celia Fiennes of the `large dineing-roome' at Windsor Four Poster Beds were higher, and deep valances were Palace inventories `feather dressers' were employed to keep in good order.

The fine four poster bed of crimson Italian brocade, believed to have been made in 1694, for the visit of William III and his court to Boughton House, Northants, when newly re­decorated and rebuilt by Ralph, Duke of Montague, and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is 14 feet high - 6 feet less than the lofty `King's Room' for which it was designed; while the great baroque bed from Melville House, Fife, lately given by the Earl of Leven to the same museum, is even higher and more magnificent.

Queen Anne's state four poster bed, at Hampton Court, is hung with Spitalfields velvet, patterned in rich colours on a cream ground; and the cornice is surmounted by four urn-shaped finials. A chair, stool, and footstools of the same date are covered with a matching velvet. Some great houses retained mourning beds, draped in black.

A new half-tester type of  Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) bedstead (without footposts) began to be made towards the end of the seventeenth, century, and is referred to by Celia Fiennes: `.., thence a dining roome the Duke of Norfolks apartment [at Windsor] a drawing-roome and two four poster bed chambers, one with a half bedstead as the new mode ...' and again `. thence into the King's constant bed chamber being one of the halfe four poster bedsteads of crimson and green damaske inside and outside the same hangings, and chaires and window curtains the same..

The Pre-Director Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) Period

Some modification to the design of state four poster beds had been made during the reign of Anne with the Introduction of boldly shaped and moulded cornices. The cornice contributed to the ornamental appearance of the deep valances necessary in the case of these tall and excessivelycostly pieces. After about 1720, the posts were made of mahogany and were left exposed; the cornice, which was still covered with the fabric of the curtains, was normally of carved deal. Ordinarily, four poster beds were smaller and plainly curtained in needlework, linen, or chintz, and a cornice was not thought essential to their composition. Mention of a small four-poster bed, `one of the new-fashioned low-beds without a cornice', occurs in the correspondence of the Purefoy family. Provision had to be made for a considerable quantity of covering material, and Mrs. Elizabeth Purefoy wrote in January 1735 to a Mr. Baxter at the Naked Boy in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden: `I desire you will send mee by Webster the Buckingham carrier... some patterns of Quilting you mention together with. the lowest prices of each pattern.' The stuff was selected and the order placed for `five & forty yards of it at ten shillings & sixpence a yard'. The `four poster bed' (i.e. the material) was not to be made up in town, as Baxter suggested, but in the house; and Henry Purefoy showed attention to detail when he wrote: `pray see that the two cloaths of each side the Quilting be as good as the pattern & the work as good. You must also send the pattern itself whereon is wrote H. Purefoy ... & send with it 4 yards of fine thick plain white Dimmothy or I think it is called Vomilion, it has a little nap on it on one side, tis to make mee night caps' - an afterthought which was to cost him eight shillings. The four poster bedstead was of lesser importance and was described as `a wainscoat one with 4 posts turned pillows [pillars] brasse ferrells & castors to be taken too peices or put together by any servant & to draw about the room upon wheells'.

The so-called `Indian' needlework was an expensive fabric. Floral patterns, worked in silk on a whiteground, imitated those of materials imported originally from China. The `Indian' embroidery on white satin of the Queen's Chamber of State, at Windsor (where the Royal apartments were in part rebuilt and refurnished during the reign of Charles II), was much admired by visitors. The embroidery was the gift of the East India Company and was therefore of Oriental origin. It may well have contributed to the later fashion for the English imitations.

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the cornice of the four poster bedstead was made of carved mahogany; and both it and the footposts were left uncovered, being exhibited as decorative features. The footposts were often of cluster column form, based either on short cabriole legs with claw­and-ball feet or on square pedestals. The cornice, frequently decorated with lobings, tended, as the rococo style became established in England, to open carving and to increasingly free forms. By about 1755 the cornice was sometimes of serpentine shape, and gilded. Four Poster Beds were lower and appeared square.

The Regency Period

The mahogany four-poster bed, very heavily curtained, retained general popularity throughout the earlier nineteenth century. A silk, chintz, a printed calico or ‘Merino damask’ was recommended for the drapery, and was trimmed with tassels and fringes. ‘ In a climate so variable As that of Britain,’ wrote George Smith in 1826, where the transitions are so sudden from cold to heat, and from wet to dry, &c. one uniform system, both as regards dress as well the fitting up of our apartments, has been found the most neficial and conducive to health; and in point of comfort  old English four post bedstead with its curtains and pery, will always be found to claim a preference before y other, although it does not follow from hence, that it is necessary to close the curtains so effectually as to exclude free ingress and egress of fresh air. ...'The proportions of the four poster bed became progressively heavier as the century vanced; and curtains and festooned valance were designed with little elegance. The nature of Victorian taste was ady foreshadowed in the cumbersome designs for foot is (P1. 57) recommended by George Smith, 1826, which described as being rather more than 9 feet in height, d as requiring a scantling of mahogany of 51 or 61 inches are.

The lighter `tent' or `field' four poster bed was suitable for a single on and for smaller rooms and was commonly to be d in villas and superior cottages (Pl. 62). The posts which were lower, sometimes about 5 feet high, were masked by gathered curtains. `Formerly,' explained Smith, the curtains adapted to this kind of  four poster bedstead became in themselves too close a covering,' but now `can be partially drawn aside to the head and foot. A shaped and rising roof or `tent' was supported on curved rods uniting the tops of head and foot posts. According to Sheraton, field four poster beds had been so called from being similar in size and shape to those really used in camps', which were usually rather less than 6 feet high, to the crown of the tester, and were made with folding tester laths, either hexagonal or elliptical shaped and hinged so as to fold close together'. Four Poster Beds of this nature were in general use in the eighteenth century. Horace Walpole mentions a tent four poster bed in a letter to Horace Walpole mentions a tent bed in a letter to Sir Horace Mann of 1752: `Our beauties,' he wrote, `are travelling Paris-ward: Lady Caroline Petersham and Lady Coventry are just gone thither. ...Lady Coventry] has taken a turn of vast fondness for her lord: Lord Downe met them at Calais, and offered her a tent-four poster bed, for fear of bugs in the inns. “Oh!” said she, “ I had rather be bit to death, than lie one night from my dear Cov!” Servants and children often slept in field beds.

The `French four poster bedstead' consisted in its simplest form of a kind of couch, placed against the wall and again intended for the use of a single person. (French four poster beds were imported, and were adapted to English designs. They were often boat­shaped, with scrolled ends, in mahogany or painted wood, and with applied brass enrichments in the classical taste. The drapery was suspended over a pole, which projected from the wall and was centred over the four poster bed at a height perhaps to feet. The stuff hung in loose folds over low subsidiary poles which were placed immediately over each end of the four poster bed, and was by this means kept free of the sleeper. A more elaborate type of four poster bed was surmounted by high, domed canopy at the head, with drapery hang down to the floor, and resembled in form the half-tester be which had enjoyed occasional favour as early as the late seventeenth century.