Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Iron Duke Neve Reposed in the Great Bed of Ware

Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Iron Duke Neve Reposed in the Great Bed of Ware

Article excerpt

The Great Bed of Ware, which has now been made up with new mattresses, sheets, blankets and pillows, tells us a lot about ourselves. The Victoria and Albert Museum is rather ashamed of it. In 1864, when it first went on sale, the museum refused to buy on the grounds that it was a `coarse and mutilated specimen'. That was all very proper, for the V&A was founded as a cynosure of design and no furniture-maker would look for ideas in this monstrosity. The museum finally surrendered in 1931, forking out 44,000, and then got a shock. No institution in the world has a more delightful and varied collection than the V&A, but once the bed was installed it immediately became and remains by far its most popular exhibit. Visitors do not say, `Where are the Donatello sculptures?' or `Show us to the Raphael cartoons.' They demand, `Can we see this giant bed, then?'

Nothing is known of its origins, but it is half a millennium old. Some said it was made for Warwick the Kingmaker, a notable bed man, but it is now dated c. 1590. It was certainly famous by 1602 when Twelfth Night had its first performance. In Act III Scene 2, Sir Toby Belch tells Sir Andrew Aguecheek that to win Olivia's hand he must write her a letter about his military exploits, `with as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware'. Six years earlier a German recorded sleeping in an inn bed at Ware `so large that four couples might comfortably lie side by side'. If, as I suspect, it was made as an advertisement for a busy inn on a main road out of London, it may have accommodated more on occasion. It is not all that big, about 11 feet square, and four modern people could just about fit in. It is the same size as the bed in the honeymoon suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood, which I once occupied. (I was making a television movie and needed the extra roomspace for scriptwriting; but it felt lonely in that huge bed at night, and I slept only fitfully.)

On the other hand, multiple occupation of beds, common up to the end of the 19th century - and even beyond in Alpine huts and the like - is a disagreeable experience too. It was the thing everyone wanted to know about the Mormons. How well did their sleeping arrangements work? In Roughing It, Mark Twain's inventive book about the Wild West in the 1860s, he gave the answer in the words of a patriarch with 72 wives. He told Twain, `I built a bed-- stead seven feet long and 96 feet wide. But it was a failure, Sir. I could not sleep. It appeared to me that the whole 72 women snored at once. The roar was deafening. And then the danger of it! They would all draw in their breath at once, and you could actually see the walls of the house suck in - and then they would all exhale their breath at once, and you could see the walls swell out and strain, and hear the rafter crack, and the shingles grind together.' He advised Twain, from the bed point of view, to aim at a small family: `Take my word for it, ten or 11 wives is all you need - never go over it.'

People may not talk much about beds but deep down they are more interested in this particular article of furniture than any other. And why not? We spend twice as much time in bed as at table, more probably, and the quality of the mattress is more conducive to our happiness than the shape of our favourite armchair. I notice that modern fashionables, who go in for minimalism in their dwellings and who often don't even have a table to eat at, not being accustomed to regular meals, nevertheless insist on a proper bed. …

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