THE Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum have secured this unique piece of furniture at a price of £850,000.
The Zodiac Settle was designed by William Burges (1827-81) in
around 1869 for his own use and was subsequently owned by John
Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh. Having passed through the Waugh family
by descent, it was they who agreed to sell it to an overseas buyer
in a deal negotiated by London dealers Blairman and Sons.
The settle was subject to a temporary export bar imposed by the
Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of
Cultural Interest (RCEWA), but has now been acquired by the museum
thanks to a £480,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund
(NHMF), a £190,000 grant from the Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art
Gallery, and a £180,000 grant from the Art Fund.
It will now form the centrepiece of the Cecil Higgins Art
Gallery & Bedford Museum's new William Burges Gallery, due to
open to the public late in 2012.
The Zodiac Settle, unlike other pieces of Burges' painted
furniture, was an experiment in form and the design was never
repeated in any of his later furniture commissions.
Burges kept it firstly in his rooms on Buckingham Street off the
Strand in London and later at Tower House, the Gothic residence he
built for himself in Holland Park.
As the image here shows, it combines the form of an Italian
Renaissance day-bed with an ornate castellated canopy and 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.
The settle is also significant to the revival of interest in
Victorian art and design in the 20th century.
John Betjeman, later Poet Laureate and already the leading
champion in the revival of Victorian Gothic architecture, was left
the remaining lease on Tower House, including some of the
furniture, by E.R.B. Graham in 1961.
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).
Waugh writes in a letter to his daughter Margaret FitzHerbert,
in July 1965, of the settle "looking very well between the windows
of the morning-room".