Great Bed of Ware returns to its home town
The Times, 7/4/2012
The V&A’s most popular object, the Great Bed of Ware, has been on almost permanent display since it arrived there 81 years ago, but for the first time it is to leave the museum to return home to the Hertfordshire town where it was created and where it will be on loan to the Ware Museum for a year.
The enormous bed had a peripatetic youth, however, roaming from pub to pub where space could be found for it to entertain tourists.
It was made over 500 years ago as an attraction for the pilgrims travelling to the shine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Ware being a day’s ride from London. At three yards wide it was built to sleep 12, but in 1689 it is said that, for a bet, 26 butchers and their wives slept in the bed.
The Great Bed is more an iconic trophy from English domestic history than a triumphant feat of craftsmanship and decorative art. Part of its legend is that it was made by a local carpenter, Jonas Fosbrooke. “That is a complete fabrication,” says Kate Hay, curator of the British Galleries in the V&A where the bed resides. “There was no such person, and it might well have been made by German craftsmen working in the East End of London, and the fantasy landscapes in the decoration would be typical. We even found the date ‘1463’ scrawled on the back of the bed head, which is equally spurious. We know it was made in the 1590s, some time before 1596”. The marquetry panels were made in the style of a Dutch artist popular in the 16th century, Hans Vredeman de Vries.
Made of English oak, its huge bedposts have been carved with the initials and dates of its occupants – one from 1729 has a tradesman’s mark and the initials DL and WC. Others left wax seals with the imprints of their signet rings. In dismantling it, the V&A’s specialists have fond more, pencilled signatures mostly dating from the mid-19th century.
The bed’s pub crawl seems to have started at The White Hart where it was in 1610, then at The George in 1698. By 1706 it was at The Crown but by 1765 it had moved on to The Bull and by 1824 the bed had arrived at its final hostelry, The Saracen’s Head, where it stayed until 1869 when it was acquired by William Teale to show it at Rye House at nearby Hoddesdon. The V&A, as the South Kensington mueum as it then was, had the chance to acquire it then but turned it down as no more than “a course assemblage”. It was eventually bought it in 1931 as a resonance of English folklore, so famous had it become, rather than as an example of decorative art.
The Great Bed has been a celebrity throughout its nomadic career. It appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written in about 1601, in which Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as “…big enough for the Bed of Ware!”. Ben Jonson’s 1609 play Epicoene, refers to “the Great Bed at Ware”, and in 1706 George Farquhar’s play The Recruiting Officer mentions a bed “bigger by half than the Great Bed of Ware”. In Don Juan Byron refers to making a “nuptial couch a bed of Ware”. The bed crops up in Djuna Barnes’s controversial nofvel of the 1930s, Nightwood, and in Loretta Chase’s 2010 novel Last Night’s Scandal. When the V&A’s British Galleries, the bed’s domain, were opened in 2001 the then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion mentioned it in his celebratory poem.
That the huge object has never before left the V&A is not so much that the museum jealously guards its most prized treasure as because of the expense of moving it. The operation is costing more than a quarter of a million pounds, and has only been made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund of £229,000. Other contributions have come from Ware Town Council and the trustees of Ware Museum itself. Last week (March 5-10) it took six specialists five days to dismantle the bed and reduce it to 140 pieces, and the team will then travel to Ware to reassemble and dress it there, taking nine days. It will go on show on April 6.
The loan is in line with the policy of national museums to lend important objects to location they can be identified to help raise the profile of local museums.
“The Great Bed of Ware is woven into the DNA of the town, and through exhibiting it here we are able to get the heritage, history and the social history of the town to local people” said Kenneth Weeks, chair of the Ware Museum Trust. “This project is already making a difference to the community through the activities that are currently taking place at Ware Museum. We want to involve all local residents, both old and new, in exploring the history of the town.”
Martin Roth, director of the V&A, added: “We hope that the people of Ware will enjoy visiting this historic bed and that it will bring their local history alive.”