Antique Writing Desks
Antique English writing desks, bureaux, and escritoires.
After writing tables we may deal with desks, and as a desk is sometimes referred to as a writing-table and the terms are interchangeable, in order to simplify description we will take first of all the sorts of desks that have a flat top like a table, and are built up on a framework of drawers or cupboards, with a space in the centre to increase the ease and comfort of those seated at it. We will not dwell on the boxes on stands that claim the title of desk, and walnut types must have our attention first. The kneehole writing-desk is perhaps the perfect combination of studied utility and elegant design: unfortunately the type is becoming rare, and opportunities of acquiring examples are few. Everything can be had at a price, it is true, and we cannot hope to fill our homes with bargains wondrous and rare from the hall to the attics. We may find a good reproduction, and with the increasing rarity of the genuine old article the acquirement of a copy or a restored piece may possess financial recommendations that cannot be altogether ignored.
Many desks were made in oak and veneered, giving their designers great scope for decorative effect with finely-figured panels of wood. Veneering is a great art, and it displays the beautiful graining of walnut to the best advantage.
The great and outstanding point about kneehole writing desks is the comfort of working at it. All the drawers are get-at-able, for there is no writing flap as in a bureau to complicate their opening, and the ample drawer and cupboard space it offers is invaluable in a small room.
Pedestal & Office Desks
Pedestal Writing Table Desk.
After the smaller types of kneehole we must consider the pedestal desk. This is generally of more massive construction, and is built up on two pedestals in which drawers are framed or cupboards fitted. Across them rests the top of the desk in which drawers are sometimes also fitted. Sizes vary, but for the most part pedestal desks are roomy and take up a fairly large amount of space. A degenerate descendant of the eighteenth century pedestal desk is the modern office desk, behind which directors and other high dignitaries of businesses carry on the romance of commerce.
Desks soon outgrew their original simplicity and developed every kind of elaboration in line and shape, and by the application of carving. Sometimes a carved frieze came below the top of the desk ; or the space between the pedestals would be arched over at the expense of one drawer, or drawers would be omitted altogether and two cupboards fitted instead with richly-carved panels. In the second and third decades of the eighteenth century desks acquired a dignity and a garment of ornament that they had never before enjoyed.
Whether this enthronement of the place of literary labour was the outcome of the increased appreciation of literature and the enormously increased literary output, or whether the desk was merely sharing the fashion for elegant carving that held the minds of craftsmen and those for whom they worked at that time, is uncertain. No doubt the literary activity of the latter part of the seventeenth and the earlier part of the eighteenth century had its effect in the production of desks and bureaux designed for the greater comfort of writers. Elizabethan and early Jacobean times had only produced rather crude desks, but as the power of the press grew, and the tidal wave of pamphlets and essays frothed along, carrying a few treasures on its crest, but for the most part fretting away in spume, the reading and writing public increased too, and their requirements had to be catered for.
Bureaus & Escritoires
The bureau or escritoire appeared, inheriting much of the severity of form that characterised contemporary seventeenth century furniture, but rising to great heights of elaboration later on. There was an amount of Dutch influence in some of the earlier bureaux, and their outlines were soft; curves came into the scheme of their design, and they were decorated with marquetry also. Bureaux were surmounted by cupboards with shelves for books, and the doors of these cupboards were sometimes of solid wood, with panels of veneering occasionally, or were glazed, or even fitted with mirrors.
Bureau Bookcase, 1809.
Shelves for books are fitted inside the upper and lower cupboards of this example. Below the upper doors, there is a false drawer, which drops down, supported on brass quadrants, to form a writing surface. The interior is fitted with small drawers and pigeonholes.
Some of the William and Mary bureau bookcases were charming in their design, and such pieces of furniture possess a great advantage, enabling you to have a small reference library within reach of your writing materials. It is simply a matter of opening a door slightly above the level of your writing pad.
In the section on the arrangement of books, bureau-bookcases are considered in relation to the display of books ; but here we may emphasise their value as writing places, and the smaller type can often help a furnishing plan in a small drawing-room or library. The varied forms of the bureau-bookcase, double-domed, single-domed, with plain cornice or broken pediment, are often copied by modern designers without much conviction or success. It is a mistake to clothe old lines with unaccustomed garments, and to treat a bad reproduction of an old model with bright colour and painted decoration is seldom satisfactory. A design honestly modem that makes no pretence of aping something old can be treated successfully with modern ideas of colour and ornament.
The bureau that resembles a chest of drawers when closed is interesting. The top drawer pulls out and the front of it is hinged to fold down and form a writing rest; it lacks the spacious convenience of the simpler types, though its construction makes for tidiness, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the effectual concealment of untidiness. There are bureaux with curved tops that slide back into a recess, and desks with gate-legs to support the writing flaphundreds of different designs, complex, costly, simple and useful; but we need not rely entirely on the productions of the past. Modern designers have evolved some ex-excellent bureaux that are essentially pieces of furniture for use. Purpose has moulded their design, and the result is a pleasing and unaffected simplicity of form, graceful in line, a clear continuation of the pre-Victorian tradition of furniture-making, yet possessing character and distinction. It is with such work that modern craftsmen achieve an interesting and effortless reflection of our own period.
There are small desks in walnut and lacquer, some of them standing on cabriole legs and having a flap like a bureau which hinges down on pull-out supports when the desk is open ; and there are small bureaux in oak, walnut and mahogany beyond description or numbering. They are excellent for small recesses, and were evidently intended originally to stand against a wall, for the backs are often rough and unfinished, and if the piece of furniture has to project into the room, a piece of damask or some such material can drape the unsightly vision of unsmoothed boards, age-stained and dusty.
Next: Chests & Coffers.