Furniture linked to Waugh and Betjeman acquired for Bedford

  • 15 February 2011

Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum has purchased a Zodiac settle designed by architect William Burges.

Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum has purchased a unique piece of furniture with literary connections.

The rare item is a unique Zodiac settle designed by William Burges, a leading figure of the 19th century Gothic Revival movement. Its previous owners include two prominent literary figures, Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman.

Originally designed by Burges for his own home, the Zodiac Settle (built around 1869) is an ornate canopied bench that combines the form of an Italian Renaissance day-bed with a castellated canopy.

Because of its cultural significance, the unique piece of furniture was subject to a temporary export bar last year. Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum led a fundraising campaign to buy the work. Their campaign was successful 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 us.

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.

Our director Stephen Deuchar 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.”

William Burges (1827 – 1881) was one of the most distinguished Victorian architects. His skills also extended beyond architecture, and he is particularly remembered for his painted furniture. The settle is an idiosyncratic example of Burges’ skill for reinterpreting medieval forms and decorations.

The settle is also significant to the revival of interest in Victorian art and design in the 20th century. The fact that two prominent British literary figures John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh, both owned the piece, suggest that the item was covetable at the time.

Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum currently houses an important collection of painted furniture designed by Burges.

Unlike other pieces of Burges’ painted furniture, the Zodiac settle was an experiment in form and the design was never repeated in any of his later furniture commissions.