Bed Hangings

Early 18th century English full tester bed Early 18th century English full tester bed Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. W.57-2002.

In northwestern Europe, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, very elaborate bed dressing systems were developed among the elite in order to display their status. These beds were known as full-testers. They were provided with four columns at each corner, which held up a roof of some kind. There were also ‘cheaper’ versions, called half-tester beds, whereby the ‘roof’ or tester only covered the head end of the bed.

Both types of beds required a considerable amount of cloth to ‘dress’ them. Sets of cloth for this purpose were known as bed hangings, and they were often decorated with elaborately woven and embroidered panels. In very large, wealthy houses there were also summer and winter versions of the bed hangings. The sheer amount of decorated cloth involved could be considerable.

There are various definitions of what was a complete set of bed hangings, but the most important items include:

  • Canopy: a sort of cloth roof to the bed, which stretches above the bed and was kept in place with four poles, one in each corner. A half-tester canopy only went half way above the bed. In some cases the canopy was called a tester, on other occasions it was known as a celour.
  • Valance: the sides of the canopy and the upper part of the curtains were covered with a valance or high valance. A valance has the same function as a pelmet, which is made of plywood or another material, but may be covered with a (decorated) fabric.
  • Headcloth: this is the cloth that went behind the headboard of the bed.
  • Curtains: there could be between two and six curtains around a full-tester bed. They covered the long sides and end of the bed. Sometimes the curtains were in pairs, on other occasions single curtains were used.
  • Lower valance: the mattress and sides of the bed were covered with a length of cloth known as a valance, lower valance, or skirt.
  • Counterpane: on top of the bed itself and covering the sheets, blankets, etc, was a counterpane or decorative cloth that often matched the other elements of the bed hangings.

See also a Russian valance dating to the early eighteenth century, and the entry on a silk valance now in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and also dating to the early eighteenth century. The Aston Hall full tester bed hangings haven recently (2021) been restored.

Digital source (retrieved 6 May 2016).

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 19 June 2016).


Last modified on Saturday, 28 August 2021 14:18
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