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".