The Great Bed of Ware is one of the V&A's greatest treasures. The spectacular four-poster bed is famously over three metres wide – the only known example of a bed of this size, and reputedly able to accommodate at least four couples!
The gigantic bed carries a reputation which is a little racier than most historic furniture in the museum. Constructed around 1590, it was most likely made as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire. Ware was a day's journey from London and a convenient overnight stop for travellers going to Cambridge University or further north. Guests carved their initials into the wood, or applied red wax seals to mark their night in the bed, still visible on the bedposts and headboard today.
The bed became so famous that in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1601), Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as "... big enough for the Bed of Ware!". It continued to be mentioned in plays and bawdy tales, and was first recorded as 'The Great Bed of Ware' in 1609, when Ben Jonson referred to it by this name in his Renaissance comedy, Epicoene.
Although unusually large, the bed's flamboyant carving is typical of the late-Elizabethan period. The woodwork is richly decorated with Renaissance designs, acanthus leaves (a popular foliage motif) and strapwork (ornamental ribbon-like patterns), alongside lions and saytrs symbolising virility and fertility. The human figures carved onto the headboard and the underside of the tester (wooden canopy) show traces of paint, which indicate that the bed would originally have been brightly coloured. The complex suite of hangings and bedclothes are modern reproductions of the originals, which coupled with the carving, inlay, and bold paintwork, would have achieved an overwhelmingly rich and dramatic effect – particularly in candlelight.
Despite being both celebrated and snubbed throughout its history, in 1931 the Great Bed of Ware became by far the most expensive single piece of furniture ever bought for the museum. At £4,000, this was four times the Furniture Department's annual budget for acquisitions at the time.
The Great Bed of Ware is on display in Britain, Room 57.