For most early Victorians, sleeping on a metal bedstead raised high above the ground was a relatively new concept, prompted by both the Industrial Revolution (which saw companies churn out brass and iron bedsteads in their thousands) and a rising concern for health and hygiene. The fact that such bedsteads have survived the past century is testament to their craftsmanship, and one of the main reasons design aficionados are hunting them down today.
Tony Butler, co-owner of antique bed specialists Seventh Heaven, says he has noticed a rise in demand not only for Victorian metal bedsteads, but for the finest examples. Take the £10,000 super-kingsize brass four-poster (c1880) recently purchased by a Singapore-based client. Like most from the period, it was made in Birmingham, but its generous dimensions, exquisite etchings and ornate castings of songbirds on the head and footboard mark it as a special commission for the African, Middle Eastern or east Asian market. “People are looking for unique pieces that stand out, and these beds work incredibly well in contemporary spaces,” Butler says.
Former businesswoman Hilary Jenner agrees. She was looking for “interesting” beds to furnish her sleek Italian-designed Victorian terraced house in south London when she heard about Seventh Heaven. “I chose three bedsteads – one Victorian, one Edwardian and one art deco. All were in a raw state and covered in mud and ivy, but I wasn’t put off.” After they were shot-blasted, Jenner had them painted black and the brass accents nickel-plated (at a total cost of just under £10,000). “They’re not at all gaudy and the nickel effect fits perfectly with the grey tones of my house.”
Although metal bedsteads were also produced in Ireland and mainland Europe, Birmingham had the biggest industry, with the city’s RW Winfield & Co workshop widely considered the “Rolls-Royce” of bed makers. A highly decorative Victorian silver-tone four-poster by the company commanded £18,750 at Bonhams in 2015, while Wessex Antique Bedsteads currently has a beautifully etched brass kingsize Winfield listed at £3,500.
Shabs Kay, who has been dealing in antique beds for 25 years and owns the Hampshire showroom Victorian Dreams, counts a decorative brass and iron Winfield among her personal collection. “It’s a kingsize with a curved base [requiring a bespoke mattress] and hasn’t been widened, which is incredibly rare. It’s probably worth £6,000.” Although it’s not for sale, Kay estimates she has at least 300 other metal bedsteads in stock, including a late-19th/early-20th-century Hoskins & Sewell brass double (£2,500), which showcases both the Victorian fondness for rounded bars and the Edwardian preference for squared.
As well as Winfield, other makers of note are Maple & Co, Peyton and Peyton, and the aforementioned Hoskins & Sewell, which held the contract for beds and cots aboard the Titanic. In addition, Kay says buyers should “look out for tapered or barley-twist brass posts, hand-painted plaques and decorative porcelain or mother-of-pearl inlay”, all of which add value due to their rarity. Somerset-based Bedsteads has a super-king brass version (c1900) with unusual fan decoration and mother-of-pearl inlay for £3,950. “Most beds from that era are 4ft 6in wide, so this was likely a special commission for someone,” says Bill Ashton, who runs the firm with his parents.
For those furnishing compact spaces, 4ft doubles and single iron and brass bedsteads are a popular choice, says Elena Merino, owner of The French Bed Company. She deals mostly in antique French beds, believing them to be “simpler and more elegant” than their English counterparts, and says many of her clients choose them for their children. One such is Louisa Russell, a former insurance underwriter who lives in a 17th-century cottage in Hampshire. She bought three 19th-century French iron singles for her children at £399 each, which she has had painted cream. She was drawn in by their rounded edges and unique history. “I grew up with an English Bedknobs and Broomsticks-style Victorian bed, but the French equivalents are more suitable for children because the side rails are lower and they have no sharp edges.”
For Matthew Howard, a technology director in artificial intelligence, the motivation behind buying two French iron double bedsteads (£695 each) – one with rose castings, the other a leaf design – from Norfolk dealer Coast to Country was to stay in keeping with the Arts and Crafts cottage he is refurbishing. “We wanted to be sympathetic to the house and own something with a backstory. We eschewed paint for a brushed patina finish, which is more in keeping with the beds and our style.” Those looking for an Arts and Crafts pièce de résistance for their boudoir might consider the solid-brass half-tester-canopy double bed with leaf and scroll designs (£7,500) for sale through Puritan Values.
Added cachet comes from the fact that you rarely stumble across the same bed twice (catalogues allowed customers to choose every feature, and designs changed annually), and that their colour, finish and size can be adapted to requirements. Their stability is another appealing characteristic, and surprised Sylvia Adamson when she first purchased an antique bed 20 years ago. “Back then, the concept of a second-hand bed was lost on me.” Adamson and her husband have furnished their UK and US homes with seven metal beds, among them an exquisite 6ft-wide mid-Victorian cast-iron four-poster (which cost £5,950). Made in England but designed for the north African market, it is decorated with brass cherub plaques and finished with a canopy and a crown for status. Adamson declares she’ll never again buy a new bed. “They’re flimsy and shiny by comparison. Antique beds make a statement and work equally well in traditional and modern interiors.” Certainly these beds are considered heirlooms by many, and with the right care will last for generations.