The completed bed. A divan and mattress will be added later

The completed bed. A divan and mattress will be added later

The posts of mahogany, foot board and foot lower valance

The posts of mahogany, foot board and foot lower valance

This company, as we know, is dedicated to the activity of textile conservation, but there are more ways than one of achieving that objective. One aim of conservation is the preservation of information, which on a broad definition could encompass the imaginative reconstruction of something missing. This example features the creation of a set of bed hangings for a well-provenanced bed stock, made by the firm of Gillow, in 1812.

All that remained of original textiles were a few rags hanging on the inside of the tester and a list of the materials that were used, indicating that it was a chintz bed, not a glamorous silk one, and the interior was probably blue calico. A remnant covering the foot board was obviously second generation floral design of the kind, but not finish, understood by the term chintz today. The construction of the bed stock was very elegant, with a pair of mahogany foot posts on either side of a foot board outlined top and bottom with rails.

The head board was missing but all indications were that it was behind a head curtain, rather than in front of it, which seems to have been a fashion of the time. The tester was a shallow rectangular dome with ribs in the corners running up to a central boss, which was deeply buttoned and covered with the remnants of the secondary cover.

Detail of the construction of the dome and cornice before conservation

Detail of the construction of the dome and cornice before conservation

Central, buttoned boss from the tester

Central, buttoned boss from the tester

The outer cornice was painted and had a cheerful, almost fairground, feeling.

Detail of the outer cornice and painted pediment. The corner pieces are replacements.

Detail of the outer cornice and painted pediment. The corner pieces are replacements.

The same was true of the inner cornices, only one of which was still surviving. The curtain rail was fixed at centre front, made in three pieces which screwed together at the side with an eye at the end to drop over a hook in the head post. Such construction indicated that it had only two curtains, stored at the head to be pulled round to meet in the front.

The current owner was anxious that the new hangings should be as ‘in period’ as possible but was otherwise open to suggestion.

Most modern re-hangings of such beds seem to be grossly out of period and make the bed look squat. While the old formality of the eighteenth century had vanished by 1812 it had been replaced with drapes and a tent like construction, but not the frills so dear to decorators today. Also, modern fabrics and passementerie have to be chosen with care to avoid any solecism. In the list ‘Parisian fringe’ was mentioned, which is made up of silk covered wooden shapes, but this would have been prohibitively expensive to reproduce.

Inspiration

The tester and bed hangings from about 1835

The tester and bed hangings from about 1835

A year or so ago we had conserved the hangings from a bed of which the stock dated more from the 1830s or 40s but the valances had been re-cut from an earlier usage, retaining their festooned character but in a smaller version.

This version seemed to pick up on the feeling of the designs to be found in illustrations of the earlier period and could be adapted to fit the construction of the bed we had, although there was curiously little evidence of how any hangings had been previously fixed up. The lack of evidence could be partly explained by the fact that the mainframe of the tester, which sat on top of the posts, had been replaced comparatively recently, stained down to hide the newness of the wood.

Although many drawings were made beforehand, much of the design developed as the work progressed, sometimes dictated by the amount of material available, the sequence of the pattern on the material and other factors not always predictable unless you are doing this kind of thing all the time.

Detail of the last remnants of the original hangings found in the tester

Detail of the last remnants of the original hangings found in the tester

The design of the interior of the tester was dictated by the remnants of the original, where the fabric was stretched in pleats horizontally fixed to the corner beams.

Detail of the last remnants of the original hangings found in the tester

Inside the tester covered with the new version of the pleated fabric

There are illustrated examples of the pleats or gathers going vertically from the perimeter to the central boss but there was no ignoring the evidence of how it was done in this case. We were not clever enough to make the pleats as small as those of the original upholsterers but we did our best.

The form of the head curtain had to be invented as there was no evidence and few illustrations.

The lining for the curtains and the construction of the new head cloth in front of the head board

The lining for the curtains and the construction of the new head cloth in front of the head board

Inside the final version

Inside the final version

Partly for economy of material it was chosen to use unpressed pleats in three groups across the width, the chintz mounted onto wide linen, outlined with patterned fabric covering the head posts, which were of plain unpolished wood.

The materials chosen

The pattern of Toile de Jouy prints used for the Gillow’s bed

The pattern of Toile de Jouy prints used for the Gillow’s bed

For the chief material, used for the external valences and curtains, a print from the Toile de Jouy series was chosen, as being nearest in design to the time of the bed, and readily available now, the single brick colour of the print bringing out the warmth of the mahogany posts.

Detail of the specially made fringe

Detail of the specially made fringe

For the interior plain chintz of dark orange (see previous illustration) went with it to line the curtains and outer valances, and a pale cream of the same material gave lightness to the head cloth and the interior of the dome. For the fringe and braid the yarn was specially dyed to colour and the shape of the fringe modified to request by Heritage Trimmings Ltd.

As an internal support a wide, fire-proofed linen used for scene painting, was supplied by Whaley’s of Bradford. Heavy duty Vilene was used to provide stiffness where needed, such as the base valances.

The construction

Considerable experience of upholstery in the general sense across the centuries was brought to bear on the cut and methods of making up, and every stitch taken by hand, the only exception, which was regretted, being the seams in the curtain linings. Although it took much longer than using a machine it was possible to match the pattern with precision across the seams and lay the braid and fringe to follow the curves of the design in a smooth line.
More detail is unnecessary here but the result has a conviction of period that has given us some satisfaction from a new venture.

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