From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Great Bed of Ware was broadcast on the 2nd July 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
What could be more romantic than a four poster bed? One of the most remarkable can be found at the V&A in London and is known as the Great Bed of Ware. It’s not only a dazzling display of Elizabethan carving from the 1590s but a giant among beds, more than three metres wide. Its enormous size alone would surely impress even the most jaded hotel guest. And that seems to be why it was made, as a marketing tool for the White Hart hostelry in the town of Ware, a convenient overnight stop for those travelling north from London. Its fame was so great that it’s mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and in Ben Jonson’s Epicene. It’s a magnificent piece of design, its four elaborate posts holding up a timber canopy and a full-height headboard, all of it richly carved by German craftsmen with fertility figures, leaves and animals. Originally painted in bright colours and with richly woven textiles for its curtains, it was, and remains, a showstopper.
It also marks a milestone in the evolution of the four poster bed. In medieval times, it was common for all members of a household to sleep in the same space, with mattresses rolled out on the floor or on the dining table. As a mark of status, the sleeping area of the master’s family was screened by curtains, which developed into built-in alcoves that were curtained off, and which were seen in humbler homes into the twentieth century when space was at a premium (in Scottish crofts and industrial tenements, for instance). The notion of a suspended canopy over the bed was known as a tester, from the Latin for head, and this developed into the full tester, held up by four posts, and the half-tester, with curtains draped from two posts at the head of the bed. They became popular from the 14th century onwards, not just in Europe but also in Asia, although there’s evidence of canopies over sleeping areas in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae some four thousand years earlier. As homes developed defined sleeping spaces – proper bedrooms – and glass became common in windows, it became less important to completely enclose the bed in thick curtains to keep out draughts. But the idea of a bed given importance through its height and use of luxurious fabrics remained, as seen in royal bedrooms throughout the world. A frame was also practical to drape mosquito nets over in tropical countries. But by the end of the nineteenth century, room sizes had become smaller and fashions had changed although the four poster remained popular in country houses. The one at Berkeley castle in Britain is said to have been used by fifteen generations of the same family. The Great Bed of Ware was intended to wow. And who among us doesn’t feel excited by the prospect of sleeping in any four poster bed, even one that is half the width? They’re symbols of romance and intimacy, majesty and class. Great beds, always, whether or not they come from Ware.