The Bed is a piece of furniture, which for many is simply a part of our everyday existence. However, if we pause to think on it, we find it is the most important piece of furniture in the home.
Persevere – no matter how fervently
she loves you, nor how deeply she trusts you,
you will never get her into bed
without a great deal of trouble and talk*
A bed reflects our social mores, aesthetic sensibilities and some of our deepest human rituals and beliefs. We spend at least one third of our lives in it.
Every culture is steeped in customs superstitions and folklore surrounding it.
As our lives unfold and we grow older, our relationship with it changes until finally it becomes a metaphor for our final rite of passage.
Since ancient times men and women have had a very real need for sleep, love and dreams. So, where can we begin to relate its story. Perhaps from the bedroom of the ancient Egyptian Queen Hetepheres, mother of Kheops (great Pyramid), which had a spacious canopy supported mosquito curtains.
Inside was a chair, a bed with a footboard and headrest, the wood overlaid with chased gold foil and inlaid with carnelian and faience.
On an Egyptian bed headrests supported the elaborate hairstyles of the Pharoah and were usually made of wood, ivory or like that of Tutankhamun, which was dark blue glass, edged with gold foil and generally padded with linen during sleep.
The Ancient Egyptians had a proverb
To be in bed and sleep not
To want for one who comes not
To try to please and please not
Luxury, in the form of rich hangings and coverlets for beds were also present in all ancient cultures, with linen and wool recovered in Egypt.
The ancient Greeks and the Etruscans, who settled in the north of modern day Italy, combined their bed and couch for the enjoyment of sleeping and reclining while eating.
The Romans evolved their beds from the Greek concept, adding turned legs, headboards and footboards and later a full back.
In the splendid Villa of P. Fannius Sinistor (Lucius Herennius Florus) at Boscoreale, which dates from the 1st century before the Christ event, a splendid bedroom or cubiculum diumum, is painted with superb frescoes.
The delineation of where the bed stood is marked by the change in the floor from simply splendid mosaics to the plain area. There is a reconstruction of the room in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
It also contains a piece of furniture reassembled from fragments found in another imperial villa outside Rome, that of the co-Emperor Lucius Verus (161-169).
On its legs are friezes of huntsmen, horses and hounds, flanking Ganymede, the handsome Trojan youth who was abducted by Zeus in the guise of an eagle to serve as his wine steward; on the footstool are scenes of winged cupids and leopards; and on the sides of the bed frame, the striking lion protomes have eyes inlaid with glass.
The Romans as evidenced, enjoyed a sophisticated and extravagant bed culture, which disappeared in central Europe for a long time with the fall of the Roman Empire.
Our idea of ‘ making a bed ‘ evolved from an early English Saxon tradition of filling sacks with hay, and it is a term we have used ever since. Straw stuffed beds were the province of everyman for centuries.
The whole idea of occupying a single chamber to sleep in became a reality in Europe during the Middle ages, that period in history that spans from the fifth, to the end of the fifteenth century in Europe.
Bed culture changed with the advent of feudal society.
Between 500-700 AD the sitting position was finally adopted in the west for eating and having a ‘bedchamber’ was a luxury enjoyed only by a privileged few.
The main ‘chamber’ of the house was about receiving guests, conducting business, as well as a hundred and one other activities, which included sleeping in a set up similar to our own modern idea for ‘open plan living’.
People traveling in dangerous regions previously frequented by outlaws and marauding tribes sought shelter in great castles where sleep became a communal affair – the sharing of rooms, or beds, recognized as a mark of political esteem or as a symbol of arms laid to rest.
Over the centuries the bed gradually became the most important piece of furniture in the house, and a very real symbol of rank, wealth and power through its association with fertility.
By the sixteenth century producing an heir to carry on the family name, increase its wealth and uphold its traditions was of increasing importance, as was the obligation for offering hospitality.
During this time the bed gained a great deal in importance and as privacy became an issue long curtains, suspended from hooks on the ceiling. They protected occupants from the gaze of others or servants who bedded down on their straw pallets nearby.
Curtains aided warmth and repelled horrendous draughts in vast stone former strongholds struggling to become noble dwellings, rather than just bastions of defense.
Textiles were an expensive commodity and bed curtains a ‘luxury item’ and very prestigious.
If fabric covered the whole bed it was a symbol of absolute nobility and wealth.
Early bed hangings were often made of wool, embroidered with flame or crewel stitch with heavy tapestries also popular.
Canopies evolved, attached to the ceiling, enabling curtains to be suspended underneath. During the day they were tied up or ‘bagged’ out of the way.
During the sixteenth century Diane de Poitiers, the famous moon mistress of Henry II of France, associated herself with Diana, the Roman goddess of women and childbirth.
The crescent moon was her symbol, intertwined with the initials of her famous lover, decorated the wooden paneling on her bedchamber’s walls.
Diane, like all well educated women of her time, knew to heighten her desirability by contrasting the whiteness of her skin against the black satin sheets on which she lay.
Sixteenth century beds had four posts to support a wooden canopy with a headboard and footboard, elaborately carved, our ancestors lavishing great funds on this piece of furniture that nurtured life from conception to birth through life and finally, death.
Many a sixteenth and seventeenth century man embarked on a ‘business trip’ leaving his wife behind, to enjoy the spectacular orgies held in the Great Bed of Ware.
Originally housed in the White Hart Inn in Ware, England it could accommodate some 15 people including on the pull out beds hidden underneath the great bed.
A high degree of comfort and convenience would become a priority in grander homes during the seventeenth century and the bedchamber was often used to receive guests.
Some bed chambers gained a close stool ensuite and mirrors, with glass now being able to made in larger pieces, were becoming an essential requirement for any lady of style.
From the beginning of the Renaissance to the French Revolution the bedchamber and the bed flourished along with the fortunes of Central Europe.
During the seventeenth century in France Louis XIV, The Sun King led the way.
From 1701 his bedchamber occupied the exact centre of the chateau as he was the Sun King, and around him everything revolved.
He devised ceremonies and elaborate rituals to keep his nobles at court, out of mischief and well entertained, so they could not plot against him.
In his bedchamber Louis XIVheld his famous state rising and retiring ceremonies. The bed was designed to stand out from the centre of the wall, which became known as the aristocratic position.
It was placed behind a balustrade where the King could only be attended by men of noble blood.
The elaborate hangings were changed from winter to summer and it was here you presented petitions and ask for jobs or favours.
The crowd approached the great man hopefully via the official path progressing along the axis of honour (the enfilade), which could take days to achieve.
More than often, those he really wanted to talk to intimately were quietly brought up the backstairs into the privacy of his closet, a small room off the bedchamber, where favours were generally secured.
At Versailles a gilded carving above Louis’ bed represented “France watching over the King in his slumber” and in 1715 he, who had made the bedchamber ‘the sanctuary of royalty’, finally died”.
The great tradition of State Beds in England was established late in the seventeenth century when Charles II returned from an exile that had been spent at the courts of France and Holland.
There he had gained new insights into what luxury meant and just how far his own country lagged behind, at least in terms of ‘taste’.
The bedchamber gained additional furniture with chairs and stools upholstered ensuite, a mirror, table and stand, often in walnut, marquetry or lacquer and sometimes in silver.
The Melville Bed is one of the most spectacular exhibits at the V & A Museum at London. Designed by French Huguenot Daniel Marot, the son of a distinguished French architect and engraver it still retains its original luxury hangings of crimson Genoa velvet, backed by ivory Chinese silk damask linings embroidered with crimson silk trimmings
Marot had left for Holland a year before Louis XIV revoked the continually controversial Edict of Nantes. He had worked in the French royal drawing office in his youth and because he was in Holland when the Edict of Nantes was revoked he was exiled from his homeland and so could not return.
He settled, entering the service of William of Orange in 1686 and becoming his Master of Works responsible for the decoration of the Palace at Het Loo, bringing his knowledge of Parisian design and decoration in the most advanced form.
He went to England with William and Mary when they accepted the invitation to rule jointly on the throne of England after James II had fled the country in 1688.
At first beds were brought over from France, but within a short time Marot had appointed upholders and manufacturers to fulfill his design commissions.
Marot’s genius lay in his ability to view a complete interior and demonstrate how unity of design could be applied to the decoration of a room as a whole, and he was one of the first designers to do so. His work in England was to have a profound effect on the history of interior design.
Beautiful English needlework used for hangings were masterpieces of the upholsterer’s art, as at the first English Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole’s house, Houghton Hall and at Hardwick Hall where the embroideries on the canopy of the State Bed were among the finest in the country.
Bess of Hardwick outlasted four husbands, becoming wealthier on each occasion. Her bed hangings were embroidered with all manner of flora and fauna, including the oak tree, a symbol of her own personal fortitude and strength.
Now bed bugs are not usually associated with the Age of Elegance, however, they plagued Europe for centuries.
During the seventeenth century authorities suggested linen overalls should be worn over the clothes in bed and undergarments made lice proof by lining them with taffeta!
Samuel Pepys, the English diarist recorded ‘ he had found a bed, good but lousy’, which sounds rather odd, and poor Lord Herbert lamented ‘he saw hundreds of bugs on their march home, full of prey’, as he had been bitten ‘on a very tender part, which I shall forbear mentioning and which we Brittons think the best part of the bullock to make steak of’.
During the eighteenth century seasoned travelers on their Grand Tour of Europe sent their servants ahead to attend to such matters.
Bed pests did not have any respect for rank. Bug men abounded, and a certain Mr. Tiffin secured precedence over all others through his advertisement in Bell’s Weekly Messenger of 1814
May the Destroyers of Peace
Be Destroyed by Us
Tiffin and Son
Bug-Destroyers to her Majesty
‘I mostly find the bugs in the bedsteads’, he said, ‘but if left unmolested, they get numerous and climb to the tops of the rooms, they’re very high minded and prefer lofty places’.
The formal layout of houses with the main bedchamber at the end of a succession for rooms was breaking down by the middle of the eighteenth century.
The increasing desire for families to seek privacy away from the public gaze, the introduction of a room for dining in, were factors in altering the structure of how houses were laid out.
In France by the mid eighteenth century a luxurious bedchamber featured superb parquetry flooring and gilded mirrors whose candles were disposed on the frames to refract the light. The Bed had also gained silk hangings with the addition of ‘tie backs’ as well as huge pillows and bolsters for comfort. The bed would also feature a counterpane (bedspread) .
Young mothers received their friends following the birth of a child and they brought the traditional French gift of cone paper packages filled with delicious, delicate confectionary (dragées).
Scottish architect Robert Adam completed his Grand Tour and introduced his neoclassical taste into England on his return in 1758, setting up shop in London. The neoclassical movement has been likened to a new Renaissance particularly in terms of house layout and decoration.
Instead of living life on one level important reception rooms moved down to the ground floor with bed chambers remaining on the first level.
His predecessors would not have understood the term ‘going up to bed’.
Adam and Yorkshire cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale were an eighteenth century phenomenon. They worked in many houses together and the bedchambers were embellished with beautiful Chinese wallpapers, festoons, garlands of flowers and classical motifs, with furniture and furnishings becoming lighter and more elegant.
The bedchamber at Nostell Priory originally decorated by Adam and furnished with polished or painted timber and upholstered furniture by Chippendale has had its original hangings replaced.
Nostell Priory in Norfolk is home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of furniture by Thomas Chippendale in the world, all of which was made especially for the house. A floor of bedchambers not ever seen before have, in 2009, been handed over to the trust for viewing from 2010.
Adam also designed a piece of furniture that looks like a bookcase, but originally was made to contain a bed, which folded up inside. Attributed to Chippendale’s workshop it was later converted into a wardrobe. A folding bed allowed a bedroom to be used as an extra living room. This bed is part of a group of furniture preserved because it belonged to the celebrated actor David Garrick (1717-1779). It was made for the guest bedroom at his country villa at Hampton, Middlesex.
The room also contained armchairs, a sofa, a dressing-table and a wardrobe, all painted blue and white to match with blue silk upholstery and curtains.
Contemporary Americans admired furniture designed by Chippendale and Neoclassical architect Robert Adam’s designs as well as the French idea of changing hangings from winter to summer and they were all taken up with great alacrity becoming part of an ongoing tradition.
Early in the nineteenth century, during the reign of Napoleon as Emperor of France, the severity of the Empire style was softened by the use of exquisite silks, sheer and opaque fabrics.
Empress Josephine had official architects Charles Percier and Pierre Leonard Fontaine design a magnificent bedchamber in her country house at Malmaison, after she had been put aside by Napoleon so he could marry again in order to gain an heir.
Her bedchamber was a triumph. The bed was raised on a dais for maximum effect, an eagle atop the canopy. The walls hung with drapery, tent style, with slender gilded columns holding up the richly embossed ceiling painted with clouds and using Napoleons’ preferred colours – Scarlet red, for blood perhaps? and Gold, undoubtedly for Glory!
The Empire style of Napoleon and Josephine was enormously influenced in its early stages by a beautiful young woman who moved in elite circles Madame Juliette Recamier (1777 – 1849).
Contemporary descriptions tell us, ‘walked like a goddess on the clouds and her voice thrilled the senses’. She dressed in a cloud of diaphanous white mousseline, never wore diamonds only pearls, and appealed to romantic sensibility, wearing crowns of real pansies and cornflowers on her head and posies on her gown. Juliette was married at 15 to the wealthy banker Jacques Recamier.
In 1798 he bought a house for her on the rue deu Mont-Blanc, which he employed the architect Berthaut to furnish in the Greek Style.
Juliette insisted on having flowers everywhere, even on the stairs, and would greet invited guests with a charming smile and invite them to see her famous bedroom.
The bed itself was raised on a dais, and declared the most beautiful in Paris, against its background of mirrored walls, draped as it was in a froth of transparent gauze, a white vapor falling from the ceiling, surrounded by vases and candelabra, and an artificial rose tree. Her bathroom was described as ‘rich and choice’, the bath itself hidden under a red stuffed top when not in use.
After 1830 in Europe cities became overcrowded with little or no suitable restraints on birth control. Coupled with advances in medical practice survival for large families was ensured and elaborate beds once again stood in the main chamber being used for a whole range of family activities
In Victorian England increasing industrial wealth meant country houses expanded. In aristocratic circles and married men and women had their own bedchambers.
Self-contained bedchambers accommodated guests at weekend parties with clever hostesses arranging their occupation to suit the games the played ‘after dark’.
Walter Scott’s tales of Knights of the Round Table had every late nineteenth century woman panting at the thought of Sir Galahad arriving on his white charger to carry her off!
Love was considered superior to sex, conducted on a higher plane involving much talk of the ‘passion of the soul’.
Arts and Crafts Designer William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, depicted his wife Janey Burden, as Le Belle Iseaut in 1858 in her bedchamber, her bed in disarray, its bed hangings ‘ bagged’ as in the middle ages.
Janey became, like all the other women of her age, guardian angels of the hearth and upholders of the sacred values of the Victorian home.
Her husband William’s ideal of womanhood exemplified the treasured image shared by most men for that of a medieval damozel at work upon the hangings for her castle bedchamber.
The aesthetic movement towards the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and England preached beautiful surroundings, promoted spiritual and mental health.
The rose motif and white paint became popular with followers of Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was a very influential designer during this period, especially in Germany and Austria.
It also became fashionable for the modern women to assert themselves and become involved directly in the decoration of their homes; a display of taste as important as dressing well and looking beautiful.
In America following World War One Hollywood movie stars became guardians of our morals. They were required to keep one foot firmly on the floor during scenes taking place in what was now known as the bedroom, where married couples slept in separate beds.
Popular star Mae West, fearful of the damaging effects of sunlight and fresh air on her beauty, kept her blinds permanently drawn, the air conditioner humming and those who were lucky enough to ‘come up to see her sometime’ discovered that her mirrored’ boudoir revealed all!
The bedchamber or bedroom today is a comfortable and familiar friend, one in which the most significant thresholds of our experiences are crossed, enveloping us in its warmth and security.
It provides a place in which we are free to consider the consequences of our days while we progressively plan for the happiness of all our tomorrows.
‘ and so to Bed, pray, wish us all good rest!
Sleep tight, oh, and don’t let the bed bugs bite!’
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2015