William Burges Settle
Rare Burges furniture with
literary connections acquired for Bedford
Council’s Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum has
purchased a unique piece of furniture created by one of the UK’s
most celebrated 19th Century makers.
The rare item is a unique Zodiac Settle
designed by a leading figure of the 19th century Gothic
Revival movement, William Burges. Designed for his own use, the
Zodiac Settle (built around 1869) is an ornate canopied bench that
combines the form of an Italian Renaissance day-bed with a
Subject to a temporary export bar since June
2010, this unique and experimental piece of furniture has been
saved for the nation thanks to a £480,000 grant from the National
Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), £190,000 from the Trustees of the
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and £180,000 from the Art Fund.
Previously owned by two prominent literary
figures, Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, the settle will now form
the centre piece of the Art Gallery & Museum’s new William
Burges Gallery, due to open to the public late in 2012.
Cllr Doug McMurdo, portfolio holder for
Leisure & Culture, at Bedford Borough Council, said: “The
collection at Bedford Art Gallery and Museum will hugely benefit
from this new addition which will enhance enormously the future new
William Burges Gallery. Bedford Borough Council is delighted that
the three organisations have been able to secure the funding for
this unique item.”
Dame Jenny Abramsky, Chair of the NHMF, said:
“This is exciting news. This stunning settle demonstrates why
Burges was so highly regarded. The National Heritage Memorial Fund
recognises its huge importance and I’m delighted it will now stay
in Bedford for future generations to enjoy.”
Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund
said: “We’re thrilled to see this unique and idiosyncratic settle
go on show at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum.
It’s wonderful to think that this piece of furniture was once owned
by two of Britain’s most celebrated literary figures, and now that
it will be shown alongside other gems by Burges, people should be
able to attain a rich, detailed picture of the maker’s creativity
and innovation. We thank all our members for helping us give such a
generous grant towards this purchase – and we encourage anyone who
cares about saving rare items such as this to join us today!”
The settle is made from painted, stencilled
and gilded wood, decorated with rock crystal and slips of vellum.
The central panel, painted by Burges’ collaborator Henry Stacey
Marks, features the sun on a throne surrounded by the dancing signs
of the zodiac. The settle’s other panels show the planets as
musicians and female figures.
William Burges (1827 – 1881) was one of the
most distinguished Victorian architects. His skills extended beyond
architecture and he is particularly remembered for his painted
furniture. The Settle is an idiosyncratic example of Burges’ skill
for re-interpreting medieval forms and decorations and gives rare
insight into the mind of the architect.
The settle is also significant to the revival
of interest in Victorian art and design in the 20th
century. This is personified by two prominent British literary
figures who were former owners of the piece. John Betjemen and
Evelyn Waugh. Betjemen was left the remaining lease on Tower House,
including some of the furniture, by ERB Graham in 1961, reflecting
Betjeman’s fame as a public defender of 19th century
architecture. Betjeman gave three pieces of furniture to Evelyn
Waugh: the Zodiac Settle, the Philosophy Cabinet (private
collection) and the Narcissus Washstand (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery
& Bedford Museum). Waugh writes in a letter to his daughter
Maragret FitzHerbert in July 1965, of the settle ‘looking very well
between the windows of the morning-room’. Subsequently the Settle
has passed through the Waugh family by descent.
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum
is the perfect home for this unique settle. It currently houses the
finest collection of painted furniture designed by Burges. These
include the Sleeping Beauty Bed, the Narcissus Washstand and a
dressing table, all from Burges’ own bedroom. In addition, the
collection includes a pair of cabinet doors, a wardrobe, a
zodiac-themed bookcase, a tulip vase, a decorative silver decanter,
a set of knives and forks, an enamelled silver bracelet and a set
of 30 zodiac-themed tiles.
Burges always intended the settle for his own
home. Firstly, his rooms on Buckingham Street off the Strand, in
London, and later Tower House, the gothic residence Burges built
for himself in Holland Park. Unlike other pieces of his painted
furniture, the settle was an experiment in form and the design was
never repeated in any of his later furniture commissions.