Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post: Ian Coulson on Restoring The First State Bed of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

24 April 2017

Special Guest Post: Ian Coulson on Restoring The First State Bed of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

In 2010 I purchased what was described by a Chester auction house as a Victorian carved Oak bed. It was an online purchase , my decision based on some rather poor images the auction house had emailed me.

The bed was certainly imposing , heavily carved in a gothic style with heraldic shields , crests and lion finials. The most striking feature was the intricately carved headboard of trypdich formation with a central Adam & Eve panel. The figures were mesmerising.

Despite studying the images I was shocked by what greeted me when I went to collect my purchase. The design and execution of the carving was sublime as was the proportion of this truly imposing bed. It was a work of art not a work of commerce. There was also the most unusual, almost tangible, feeling of power about the bed.It was immediately obvious that the bed had areas of loss and damage. There were only two crests to the canopy, one attached at the headboard the other at the footboard, a symmetrical arrangement but not correct. 

There should have been three crests, one at the front and one on each side. Of the two remaining crests one had a large split and areas of loss. The lower headboard panel, beneath the carved trypdich, was completely missing as was the headstock rail, replaced with a pine board. The side rails were clearly replacements that did not fully fill the depth of the mortise joints on the posts. Of the four lion finials, two had large cast iron screws, one a cast iron dowel the other a wooden dowel. One of the front lions was missing its tail.

The footboard had been repaired between the carved panels to consolidate the structure. The front posts had been tipped at the base with eight inches of oak carved to match. The side canopy rails were missing the open fret strawberry vine carving that was still present on the front rail. This level of loss and damage on a Victorian bed made of oak made no sense. On closer examination large areas of extinct woodworm were obvious beneath the thick and rather unflattering varnish that covered the whole bed.

There were signs of shrinkage throughout. The central headboard panel had shrank by over an inch across the grain from its rebates but remains tight as a drum on its length. The unvarnished end grain of the posts revealed a deep level of oxidisation that had taken centuries to occur. It was becoming quite obvious that this was not a Victorian bed!

The roses on the posts and lion finials coupled with the arms of England and France on the shields of the headboard and footboard suggested royalty. Research showed surviving Lancastrian beds from the Stanley circle of a similar style from the late 15th – early 16th Century. These beds are covered in family heraldic devices.

The self evident age of the timber, the royal devices with the lack of other family insignia and the exquisite design and execution of the carving convinced me that this was a royal bed of Henry VII. A claim so improbable that few would listen, this was going to be a long journey!

Research revealed two Victorian oak beds of a similar design from the workshop of George Shaw  (1810 -76) of Saddleworth. These were smaller beds, ill proportioned and clearly mechanical in their production. Made to deceive and presented to Northern aristocracy as long lost family treasures!

It was obvious to me that Shaw must have had knowledge of the Henry VII bed in order to make his copies. A visit to his former home in Uppermill, Saddleworth proved this theory to be correct. His home is filled with 19th century carving, the details extracted from the bed. His library has a triptych over mantle inspired by the headboard.

On turning to leave the library I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the missing front crest from the bed! It had been truncated by eight inches on each side and placed above his door as a pediment. 

It had the same pattern of woodworm damage on the base as one of the side crests and it was covered in the same unflattering thick varnish. The shield of this central crest does not have the St George cross as the side crests do but rather the quartered Royal arms of England.

In 2011, upon realising the unique historic importance of the bed, I had made the decision to do no restoration other than that needed to conserve what remained. This had been a bed for over half a millennium and I believed should proudly show it’s signs of age. The obvious repairs were left and the losses have not been replaced.

Colleagues suggested removing the treacle varnish to better display the carving and the age of the oak. However this too remains. This proved an important decision as within the varnish are the remains of crusty medieval pigment. Helen Hughes took extensive samples to reveal a ubiquitous paint treatment on all the original parts. Ultra marine blue (a pigment more expensive than gold) was found on the central headboard panel.

In 2016 I was able to have the Royal Arms crest temporarily removed from above the door in Saddleworth. This was taken to Lincoln University where a mould and plaster cast were produced. All three crests were reunited for the first time in over 150 years.

Replicating the front crest would allow the correct proportions and indeed iconography to be reinstated on the bed. An intact side crest was used as the pattern and a hand carved oak replica was commissioned. In 2013 I was fortunate enough to meet Dr Jonathan Foyle, who recognised the age and quality of the bed. Most importantly his extensive knowledge of the period took the research to levels I could have never imagined.

Ian Coulson

The story of the research and restoration is told in a film 
The First State Bed of Henry VII & Elizabeth of York: an investigation

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About the Author 

Ian Coulson's degree in Art History gave him an appreciation of form and proportion that has endured these past thirty years. On leaving university he entered the world of antiques where he became fascinated by the history of the four poster bed. Over the years Ian has bought, sold, researched and restored hundreds of these often grand and imposing beds .Some have a story to tell. Find out more at and find Ian on Twitter @IANCOULSON2

1 comment:

  1. How can a museum or someone not pay so much money for this bed?


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