Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber Back

This exhibition about Baroque state beds and the rituals of the royal bedchambers of the British court has an unnecessarily sensationalist title, but displays and contextualises a number of extraordinary objects and royal customs. It was curated by Sebastian Edwards and is located in a sequence of rooms in Mary II’s Apartments in the Baroque wing of Hampton Court, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and John Vanbrugh’s Prince of Wales’s Apartments. All of the state beds on display have undergone extensive conservation and restoration in recent decades. The visitor is introduced to the exhibition with large upright panels shouting its themes (Death! Birth! Sex!) at the bottom of the Queen’s Staircase, together with a piece of contemporary art suspended from the ceiling, which, according to Historic Royal Palaces’ website is a ‘fresh contemporary twist to the core principles of the Baroque aesthetics’. The exhibition was designed by the brand consultancy Universal Design Studio, who, while attempting to complement the Baroque splendour of the subject and physical space of the exhibition, at times run the risk of overpowering or distracting from the quality and exquisiteness of the objects. For example, one wonders whether the funds for large shiny signs with huge lettering to introduce the exhibition, or elaborate audio-visual effects (presumably implemented to create ‘atmosphere’) would not have been better spent on more loan objects, or indeed a catalogue.

The first room of the exhibition is filled with large thick mattresses. Visitors are invited to lie down on these and watch an impressionistic film projected onto the ceiling that introduces themes, stories and images from the exhibition. This may not be to everybody’s taste, but there is no doubt that this is an effective, if radical, way of getting a younger audience, including children, hooked on complex historical subjects and objects. Given that Hampton Court is a popular family destination, it is understandable that any exhibition design has to take into account a wide range of visitor types. However, some visitors might appreciate a more informative leaflet or brochure. The one that is available is very basic, containing little more than images of the exhibition layout. An exhibition catalogue was not produced.

The second room contains an impressive set of objects related to the theme of royal bedchambers and the rituals associated with them, all displayed in purpose-built cases placed diagonally in the room. It is never easy to incorporate contemporary display cases into historic interiors, but here it works well, with the visitor wandering through the room as if window shopping for curious and beautiful items, perfectly lit and their significance briefly but succinctly explained on labels. William III’s close stool, dating from around 1700 and upholstered in crimson Genoa velvet, deserves special mention, as it is unique in surviving in its original location. The accompanying text explains the contrast between this most intimate space of the palace and the very public space that was the ceremonial state bedchamber. Still, the king would not have been alone in his stool closet. His closest servant, the ‘Groom of the Stool’, was in attendance during the intimate moments of using this luxurious if impractical toilet.

The exhibition is particularly successful in relating many of the objects and stories to the servants who would have been working at court and culminates in an extraordinary larger-than-life painted portrait of domestic servant Bridget Holmes, the ‘necessary woman’ to James II and William III. Depicting one of the longest serving servants in royal history, this portrait was probably commissioned by James II and shows Holmes in her working clothes, aged 96. Apart from other duties, a necessary woman would have had to empty the king’s chamber pot. A rare surviving example of a silver chamberpot is also displayed, made for an earl in 1731, and on loan from Ham House. Its design is simple and functional, but the precious material and quality of manufacture reflects the wealth and magnificence of its owner.

The room’s outstanding object is the fragment of an early seventeenth-century bedrail, possibly made for Charles I’s wife and later used by Charles II. As a piece of ceremonial equipment the ornately carved and gilt bedrail is an imposing reminder of the physical and symbolic distance between the royal body and the rest of the court and society. It is one of the challenges of this exhibition to explain the highly orchestrated public rituals and unusual sleeping arrangements in the bedchambers of the Stuart and Hanoverian court. Contemporary concepts of privacy did not apply here, and the curator successfully conveys the complex uses and customs associated with state beds by focussing on the fabric, design and splendour of the six beds included in the exhibition, while also telling stories of royals and servants connected with them. Storytelling is a common and popular device in contemporary curating. It humanises objects that might otherwise be difficult to relate to, and no doubt helps visitors to understand the symbolic significance of the Baroque bedchamber. The exhibition website offers further details of individual stories and biographies, alongside lighter-weight interactive games, such as ‘Make your own bed’; the latter surely aimed at a very young audience.

Whatever the stories and people involved with the six magnificent beds on display, their restoration, interpretation and lighting add just as much to the understanding and appreciation of them as highly symbolic, splendid and beautiful objects. Seeing them in the context of Baroque interiors allows visitors to physically experience the journey through rooms of increasingly rich and ornate interiors until they reach the great state bedchamber, where the monarch would conduct affairs of state before an audience of courtiers, politicians and other members of the royal family. Private bedchambers are indicated by screens through which visitors peep like voyeurs, adding an interactive element to the display.

Each of the six state beds is special in its own way (or, as the website tells us, ‘has a unique story to tell’), but a few curatorial inclusions stand out. Queen Anne’s bed, on display for the first time in twenty years after six years of conservation, is exquisitely lit and combines a tragic story with the utmost grandeur and craftsmanship. Commissioned by Queen Anne herself at the end of her life when she was seriously ill, this may have been her intended deathbed, where she would perhaps die in a public ceremony, much in the tradition of royal bedchamber rituals. As it happens, she died before the bed was finished, but here materiality and design are as important as the story: the richly coloured velvet fabric in a ‘bizarre pattern’ was ordered by the Queen from weavers in Spitalfields, London, in support of English manufacture and industry. The HRP website provides further information on the restoration of this particular bed, including a video of its assembly at Hampton Court.

A late eighteenth-century bed commissioned by Queen Charlotte was also never slept in and is described in the exhibition as ‘the last great royal bed’. Here, too, design and manufacture are evocative of fashion, cultural context and personal taste. The pattern of 4,230 hand-embroidered flowers, each of an individual design, reflects the popularity of flowerpainting in that period in general, but also Queen Charlotte’s personal passion for botany. The embroidered flowers are thus not just decorative but also botanically accurate, and the curator highlights the possible link to Mary Moser, a flower painter and one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy, known to have decorated an entire room at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park with floral patterns and motifs.

A smaller bed, less glamourous, but a rare survivor of its kind, is George II’s travelling bed, the only known royal travelling bed to survive from dozens made for the large Hanoverian court. In its neatness, quality and ingenious design it encapsulates the notion of a royal court, and its rituals, on the move.

The bedchamber as performance platform, the bed as stage, the bed as symbol of power and riches, but also of birth, death and tragedy – all this is conveyed in an inspired exhibition that deserved a good exhibition catalogue or a scholarly accompanying publication that could have provided more information on the materiality and design history of Baroque state beds.

Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber is at Hampton Court Palace, Greater London, from 27 March to 3 November 2013.