It all started with a box of bits Venetia found at an auction sale in Lancashire. The catalogue description said ‘A Regency/William IV Mahogany Four-Poster Bed (As Found)’. And that’s exactly what the slightly blurred photograph on my computer showed us: a rather grand, bona-fide, old-fashioned four-poster bed.
For many years I’ve had fantasies about sleeping in a traditional antique four-poster. The king-sized Arts and Crafts number that served my bachelor years came from Heal’s– no shame in that, but it lacked the charm of the real deal. With the nights drawing in, I had visions of cosy winter evenings curled up with television set, the wife and the Whippet; or waking up on a frosty Christmas morning to find the Ghost of Christmas Present poking his jovial silver beard through the Fortuny hangings…
During the Middle Ages four-posters were favoured by the aristocracy, and as their attendants often slept in the same room, the hangings not only provided warmth but privacy too.
Now although we happen to live in the middle of a London building site (glittering skyscrapers sprouting from thepavements ona daily basis), our house manages to have an English Country House vibe. The ceilings are high, the bedroom walls are painted a hip oily green from the Paint & Paper Library and there are seagrass mats: a four-poster would be just the ticket.
And so we left a bid. And three days later it was ours. Then followed a sequence of grovelling emails, trying to find some kind soul who might be prepared to pick it up and drive it down to us in London at a reasonable cost.
I had originally reckoned on building the bed myself, but one look at the tatty cardboard box of wooden bits, four poles, wonky imperial screws, industrial-sized bolts and various odds and ends told me otherwise. I happen to be allergic to flat-packed furniture, and flat-packed furniture is allergic to me. I’m one of those impatient types who attempts to build something first and then finally reads the instructions when it all goes horribly wrong.
And so we bribed my fellow antiques dealer and restorer, Adam Bentley, to spend a happy afternoon with stepladder and a pot of glue, putting it all back together again. I have also forgotten to mention that by now we had acquired a large pile of mahogany bits and pieces that were also lying all over the floor. With the change in temperature, the mahogany veneer from the top rails had cracked into myriad small pieces and dropped off one by one.
But at last we were the proud owners of an antique four-poster bed. I invited a distinguished antiques dealer friend round for a drink and a closer look; a man of many years’ experience and an acknowledged expert in Georgian furniture: ‘Scottish, c1830’ he said, sucking in his breath. ‘How much did you pay for it?’
Of course, what we hadn’t realised was that antique beds come in different sizes from modern beds. If you walk into a department store and buy the modern version it will come ready-made, in a standard size, with a standard mattress to fit. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, people were smaller than they are today (if you don’t believe me, go and have a look at the fabulous costume galleries in the V&A), and so antique beds were often constructed in a variety of random sizes. We heaved our old standard mattress onto the four-poster only to find that it was slightly too wide and slightly too long. The two protruding mahogany posts at the foot of the bed had nowhere to go either.
It was at this stage that we discovered the exciting world of the bespoke mattress. There are helpful companies out there who will be more than delighted to make you a new mattress (at cost) that will fit your antique four-poster to the letter- including the cut-out bit at the foot to accommodate the two posts.
There’s also the agonising dilemma of the hangings. Do you go for the ‘Full Monty’? Or do you go for the ‘Half Tester’ look? If you’re a minimalist urban trendy, you might get away with no hangings at all. The first quote for lined and interlined hangings gave me a coronary, which explains why we’re currently channelling the urban, modernist look.
So even if you do find that bargain at auction, don’t forget that there are all sorts of hidden costs. But would I go back to another bed? Certainly not. Even as I lie on the squashed ill-fitting mattress, with autumnal gales rattling the windowpanes and the stark mahogany frame yet to be hung, I feel a great sense of satisfaction. And calm. Once you’ve slept in an authentic antique four-poster, there’s no turning back. I would never sleep in anything else.
Luke Honey is an antiques dealer, blogger and writer. He bought his bed from Silverwoods Auctions. As with any other antiques, prices for 19th-century four-posters can vary, but expect to pay in the region of £400 upwards for a decent antique double four-poster at a local auction, with prices rising to the thousands for earlier examples. Be aware that you may need to have a bespoke mattress made specially to fit the bed.
For more advice on buying antiques at auction, check out our Collectors’ Guides
Image: Luke Honey