In Focus

A Gothic Revival Bedstead

Henry Clay was one of the most popular politicians in 19th-century America. His skillful practicality in political matters earned him the nickname "The Great Compromiser." He managed, among other political feats, to forestall the outbreak of the American Civil War by at least a decade through his ability to work effectively with both sides in heated political contests. When he decided to run for president in 1844, his supporters were so assured of his victory that they commissioned a magnificent Gothic Revival-style bedroom suite from Philadelphia cabinetmaker Crawford Riddell to use in the State Bedroom of the White House (later renamed the Lincoln Bedroom); however, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history, Clay lost to James K. Polk, in large part due to Clay's opposition to the U.S. annexation of the Republic of Texas. "Personally, I could have no objection to the annexation of Texas," Clay remarked, "but I certainly would be unwilling to see the existing Union dissolved or seriously jeoparded for the sake of acquiring Texas." With this statement, Clay outraged northerners and offended southerners, effectively announcing his own political death. He suddenly found he had no use for the magnificent and palatial bedroom set that had been destined for the White House.

The bedstead, now in the Dallas Museum of Art, was the centerpiece of this ensemble. In keeping with its intended setting, this grand creation embodies all of the characteristics of a "state" bed: massive scale, soaring height, high-backed headboard with low foot rail, a grand canopy, and the use of rare and exotic materials in its construction and finish. Constructed almost entirely of Brazilian rosewood—rare at the time and almost extinct today—it is a supreme example of Gothic Revival-style furniture, exquisitely carved with appropriately Gothic details, such as vaulted arches, soaring pinnacles, and intricate tracery patterns. The colossal bed measures over thirteen feet high, seven feet wide, and nearly nine feet long. Unquestionably the most important example of American Gothic Revival furniture in existence today, it not only stands as a hallmark of superior design and craftsmanship, but, in terms of historical interest, serves as a potent reminder of the political and social aspirations of America in the years preceding the Civil War.

When Henry Clay lost his bid for the presidency, Daniel Turnbull, reportedly the wealthiest man in America at the time and owner of the renowned Rosedown Plantation near St. Francisville, Louisiana, purchased the ensemble. It was installed in Rosedown in 1845, and until it came to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2000 it had never been moved except for a single brief period in the 1960s for minor repair work. The plantation by then had become lauded as one of the most historically important houses in the country; remarkably, it survived entirely intact and in the original family's ownership from 1835 until the mid 1950s.

The Gothic style of the bedstead deserves further mention. Many scholars have described Gothic Revival as a movement rather than a style. More than merely representing a fashion, in the mid-19th century it carried powerful religious, political, and even moral overtones, and it was praised by critics who championed the association between medieval sacred architecture and contemporary secular institutions. That this stately suite of Gothic Revival furniture was purchased and brought to a plantation in Louisiana speaks eloquently to the aspirations of the social and economic elite of the American South before the devastations of the Civil War. The 1820s had brought an explosion in the cotton-growing industry throughout much of the southern part of the United States. Enormous fortunes were made, attracting speculators who helped stimulate additional economic activity and thus fuel further wealth. By 1840 a solidly hierarchical economic, social, and political culture was in place, comprised of slaves at the lowest level and phenomenally wealthy plantation owners at the top. Daniel Turnbull was a member of the latter class when he built Rosedown, and it was in that setting that he acquired this great symbol of social and political status—a truly regal suite of Gothic Revival furniture that was made to grace the White House.

Adapted from

Carl Wuellner, "A Gothic Revival Bedstead," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), pamphlet 82.