The remarkable 'Bute' bed of richly sculpted and inlaid teak was commissioned by John Patrick Crichton-Stuart (d. 1900), soon after succeeding in 1868 as 3rd Marquess of Bute, Earl of Dumfries, and Baron Cardiff of Cardiff Castle. It was designed in the mediaeval fashion by the brilliant architect-designer William Burges (d.1881) to serve as a centrepiece for the seven-storied Clock Tower created at Cardiff Castle in Wales.
It was before he was a year old that Bute had inherited thirteen titles, as well as a vast fortune, upon the death of his father, the 2nd Marquess (d. 1848), who has been described as an entreprenerial genius and 'Maker of modern Cardiff'. This inheritance, combined with his scholarly passion for history and antiquarianism, led him to embark on the romantic aggrandisement of the Georgian castle; with Burges' assistance, from 1865 he began planning its transformation into a nobleman's residence in the mediaeval style appropriate to its ancient mediaeval elements. In 1865, the year that Bute entered Christ Church College, Oxford, Burges published his artistic theories on reviving the spirit of mediaeval architecture in a treatise entitled Art Applied to Industry, which claimed 'We may learn nearly all we want to learn if we go to the Middle Ages'. Indeed he was already celebrated as a mediaeval archaeologist and designer of novel and richly decorated furnishings through his involvement with the 1850 Architectural Exhibition and the Mediaeval Court of London's 1862 International Exhibition.
The Clock Tower began Burges' life-long enterprise at Cardiff, and his visionary schemes for its eclectic interiors were portrayed in Axel Haig's superb watercolours executed in the late 1860s and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870 (see Matthew Williams, 'Gorgeously arrayed in blue and gold', Country Life, 5 March 1998, pp. 56-59, fig. 2). His /odels for furniture were prepared in 1871, the year that building work was completed on the Clock Tower. Its interior embellishments appropriately alluded to Bute's patronage of the Arts and Sciences, and to the Renaissance concept of a great prince's role in making 'time' go well. Iconographical schemes associated with Time and the Zodiac combined with chivalric and heraldic themes and images of the scholars and artists transforming base minerals into precious art.
The heraldic enrichments of the bed reflect the young Marquess' pride in his 'Stuart' descent from the Brittany family that served in the Middle Ages as High Stewards of Scotland. His Stuart 'chequered fess' inlaid in the manner of intarsia recalls his ancestor Richard Steward, who precisely five centuries previously had succeeded as King Richard II of Scotland in 1371. His armorial FitzHamon 'lion' serves as guardian finials for the bedhead, whose chequered posts were additionally wreathed by a ribbon-band of points.
The bed was designed in harmony with the architecture and ornament of the chamber, whose richly carved bedchamber door was guarded by a dragon. Its walls of Welsh Caerphilly stone, enriched with minerals from the Bute estates, feature a lunette of St. George and the Dragon, and this is painted above a flowered cornice and forms part of the vaulted ceiling providing a rich canopy for the bed. The bed's headboard, with its colonnade and jewelled band of mirrored and bevel-edged tablets, harmonised with the French-fashioned chimney-piece which had a jewelled and foliated cornice with vase-dressed corbels, and a pyramidical hood displaying the Crichton-Stuart armorial escutcheon ensigned with a coronet and tied by a mediaeval crenellated ribbon. The spindle-railed footboard is surmounted by ancestral urns in the form of lidded goblets, and its tablet displays Bute's armorial escutcheon supported by chimerical griffin or eagle/lions emerging from gothic-scrolled foliage. Although not completed until 1874, the Tower furnishings were proceeding around the time of the Marquess' engagement and marriage to the Duke of Norfolk's daughter, Gwendoline Fitzalan-Howard (d. 1932), which took place when she had reached the age of eighteen, in 1872. This armorial escutcheon celebrates their marriage, but the bed was later to become known as the 'Bachelor' bed. The arched pillow-boards also display chequered targes, or circular shields, borne by chimerical beasties in the form of bonneted harpy or bird-like nymphs, serpent-tailed and with goat hooves or lion paws. The vase-spindled sideboards also terminate in armorial tablets displaying Venus' dolphins supporting shields displaying Bute's 'FitzHamon' lions. The bed's original flower-strewn coverlet of green serge was also 'crewelled' or embroidered to harmonise with the room's window curtains and 'portiere'. These 'gorgeous' and richly fringed textiles survive, and accord with Burges' observations that original mediaeval textiles displayed 'geometrical regularity' in flat patterns, while their 'Flowers are never drawn in perspective, but conventionalised'. On the Bute coverlet, the red, white and blue flowers are spread in velvet trefoils, quatrefoils and octofoils in a geometric mosaic, and woven in serpentined frets entwining the border ribbons (Cf. Matthew Williams, op. cit., figs. 5 and 8). The bed is likely to have been executed by Thomas John, foreman of Bute's Cardiff Workshops, assisted by his son Thomas John junior and the sculptor Thomas Nicholls (d. 1896).
When the Butes first dined in the Tower apartments in 1873, Lady Bute reported that 'Dear Burges was present and quite content with his own work' (J. Mordaunt Crook, op. cit, p. 264). However the bedroom furnishings were not completed until the following year.
The 3rd Marquess of Bute was a fervent Celt, an enthusiastic builder and an inveterate antiquarian, and was recognised in his day as the hero of Benjamin Disraeli's novel Lothair, 1870. He has also been described as 'the serious-minded Victorian 'Renaissance' gentleman', equally at home in the study of the Middle Ages and in the daily business of his landed estates and industrial empire. The bed is a masterpiece of the architect Burges, whom the Marquess once described as his 'soul inspirer'.