Antique furniture exhibition set for University of Leeds

A new exhibition at the University of Leeds called Part of the Furniture explores the history of furniture and furnishings through rare and beautiful books from the world-leading library of book collector and antiques dealer John Bedford

The exhibition can be seen in The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery from January 9-December 21, 2024. 

Visitors can expect to explore ornate designs by a renaissance pioneer, a unique Chippendale cabinetmaker’s pattern book, elaborate trade cards, colourful catalogues, drawings and manuals that chart the evolution of furniture history – and the journey from drawing board, to workshop, to home.  

The exhibition also celebrates Bedford’s life, his vast knowledge and his generous legacy to the University of Leeds, which enabled the extension and refurbishment of The Brotherton Research Centre on campus, and the establishment of The John Bedford Fellowship, in addition to the donation of his dazzling library. 

Bedford began his career in the world of antiques with a stall in a Kensington antiques market in the 1960s, and went on to dominate the trade in London. The knowledge he accumulated through buying and selling antique furniture, and building his library, in turn helped to shape the study of furniture history. On his death in February 2019, the late dealer left his fine collection of rare books, manuscripts, artworks and objects to the University of Leeds, where it joined the renowned Art and Antiques Market Collections. 

Pattern books by the likes of Chippendale and Sheraton appear in the exhibition as key historical texts. Upholsterer and dealer in ‘ancient furniture’ Daniel Thorn might be less of a household name, but his personal sketchbook of designs for drapery, curtains and furniture is a lively working record of the fashions of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.  

Powerful human stories animate the artefacts with the presence of the people who used and made them: a contract from 1728 details the apprenticeship of a ‘poor boy’ to a tailor and upholsterer under the harsh conditions of the Elizabethan Poor Laws; Horace Walpole’s own copy of the lavish volume describing his villa, Strawberry Hill, records the role of this eccentric aristocrat in the birth of the Gothic Revival; and coloured plates in Augustus Charles Pugin’s ‘Gothic Furniture’ were thought to have been drawn by his 13 year-old son, also named Augustus. By the time of his death in 1852 at the age of just 40, the younger Pugin had become one of the most important creative forces in Victorian Gothic design. Bedford’s copy of the auction catalogue for his great library and collections the following year has buyers’ names and prices noted by hand against each lot.   

A 17th-century ‘Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing’, which both responded to and drove the demand for imitation East Asian lacquerware furniture, is one of the most famous texts in furniture history, and Bedford’s copy is displayed in its own original lacquered cover. Dating from almost a century later, ‘The ladies amusement; or, Whole art of japanning made easy’ was a resource for the hobbyist at home, full of decorative designs for cutting out and pasting on to household items. Bedford’s is the only surviving complete coloured example, and it was among his favourite possessions.  

These centuries-old objects can also challenge our misconceptions about the past: Henry Lawford’s gloriously garish 1855 fold-out sofa catalogue sweeps away the clichés of dismal Victoriana in a colour-lithographed riot of puce, lavender and pea-green.  

The final item in the display, an exceptionally rare 16th-century book of fanciful designs for furniture by French renaissance tastemaker Androuet Du Cerceau (1511-1586), was acquired by the University of Leeds Libraries in 2023 in memory of John Bedford, and to complement his bequest.  

The exhibition is curated by a trio of University staff: Dr Mark Westgarth, Associate Professor, Art History and Museum Studies and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Art & Antiques Market; Dr Rachel Eckersley, Rare Book Specialist, and Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis, Special Collections Curator. 

Dr Mark Westgarth commented: “The subject of furniture history began to emerge in the 1830s and has since evolved to become a vibrant multifaceted discipline.  Driven by subject specialists, furniture history has been intimately associated with collecting and furnishing with antique furniture, and with antique furniture dealers such as Bedford.  This exhibition shines new light on the themes and subjects that have come to dominate furniture history as a subject, and asks what furniture history might look like in the future.” 

Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis commented: “I only met John once, when I visited his home in Guernsey to survey his library, but I will never forget his kindness, enthusiasm and genuine delight at sharing his favourite books with me. He understood the importance of not letting his library remain hidden, and his Trustees saw to it that once it was transferred to Leeds, significant resource was made available to catalogue the collection, allowing anyone to explore its riches online. John’s foresight and generosity also enabled us to build a brand new flexible teaching space – his gift has been utterly transformational.” 

Dr Rachel Eckersley explained: “As one of the project team I had the pleasure of cataloguing John’s rarest and most precious printed books. We are now in a position to share the riches of John’s collection with the widest possible audience, fulfilling his wish that anyone interested in furniture history should be able to use and enjoy his library.” 

Part of the Furniture: The Library of John Bedford is on show at The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, University of Leeds from January 9-December 21, 2024. Admission is free and open to all, with no booking required, and the gallery is open from 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Saturday.