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Antique Writing Desks - A Brief History

This Article appeared in Period Ideas Magazine and was written by Margaret Powling & David Lawrence

An antique writing desk is one of the most appealing items of furniture.  Whether highly polished or ink-stained and well-used, it is often more evocative of its owner than a hairbrush or a monogrammed dinner napkin.  Consider the side-by-side intimacy of Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s in Osborne House or the solidity of Vita Sackville-West’s in her Tower room at Sissinghurst Castle, her “inner sanctum where nobody dared to disturb her while she worked.”  And yet the writing desk only materialized in the 17th century.  Before then a desk had merely been a box with a sloping lid, somewhere a scribe could store all the paraphernalia of writing.  This sloping box metamorphosed into the escritoire

Charles Dickens own writing desk and chair

Charles Dickens' Writing Desk and Chair

“The escritoire was rare in England before the middle of the 17th century.  Basically formed as a desk with a space to accommodate the knees of the writer and in some instances with a flap that could be raised to form a larger surface, a small drawer was often incorporated in the frieze of the stand,” says furniture expert, John Bly.  A further development was when the stand for the escritoire was replaced by a chest of drawers and the bureau was born.  Today we are more likely to have a work station or, in the very least, a cupboard designed or adapted for a PC than to sit at a traditional desk.

             The first piece of furniture produced as a recognizable desk was the secretaire.  The writing surface was a front flap (or false drawer) that was hinged to fold back against a chest of drawers when not in use.  By the the 18th century this had developed into the kneehole desk – a popular design with Georgian ladies - with its traditional cupboard at the back of the kneehole cavity,  providing extra storage space.  Meanwhile in France, the bonheur-du-jour, often referred to as ‘a lady’s writing cabinet’, became the fashionable Frenchwoman’s must have:  a small side table with a single frieze drawer and a shallow superstructure of small drawers and pigeonholes.  It was much imitated in Victorian Britain.

Antique Library Tables - Antique William IV Library Table

Antique William IV Library Table in Mahogany

Sold by Antiquedesks.net  2011

Another much imitated style of desk is the Davenport.  It is believed that the first was made by Gillows of Lancaster near the end of the 18th century for a Captain Davenport, who wanted a desk of small proportion suited to the confined space aboard ship.  It is a narrow, upright cabinet with a sloping top that slides forward, and with a series of drawers in the base.  Early Davenports were made of mahogany or rosewood (a name for several richly-hued timbers which have a sweet smell, explaining the name ‘rosewood’.)

“Davenports remain popular,” says Lynda Lawrence of www.antiquedesks.net   “They are able to accommodate a laptop which can also be stored under the writing slope.”

            An attractive but less practical desk is the Carlton House, the first having been made for the Prince Regent and which originally stood in his bedroom at Carlton House.  A U-shaped desk, its writing surface is surrounded by a bank of shaped narrow drawers. Such desks are often very ornate, with a great deal of decoration and brass galleries around the top. Today, they can command high prices and are bought mainly as decorative pieces.

Was there a ‘golden age’ of the desk?

“The Victorians were the administrators of the Empire. They needed clerical staff, people working in offices to get the work done and orders sorted, and desks were needed. The earlier Georgians’ desks were more of a gentleman’s affair, from which to run his estate or for a lady to do her correspondence,” says Lawrence. 

As the Empire grew, craftsmanship was superseded by mass-production.  Limited quantities of finely crafted desks were still being produced by cabinetmakers, but the vast majority of desks in the late Victorian period and the early 20th century were assembled rapidly from component parts by relatively unskilled labour.  Therefore, age alone does not always guarantee quality.

According to Lynda Lawrence, some of the most popular desks today are pedestal desks with leather writing surfaces.  “The pedestal desk usually comes in three parts – two pedestals and a top.  This makes for easy moving up and down staircases.  They were usually made of mahogany or oak.  We try to keep the leather if it is sound, and have restorers who can refurbish or even dye the colour to match your curtains if you wish.  Antique desks are excellent value right now.  Much of the detailing such as panelling, cock-beading around the drawers, and turned or brass handles would be prohibitively expensive to produce today.”

For people who value quality and craftsmanship the choice of desk comes down to personal taste. A partners’ desk for a couple running a business from home; a bureau/bookcase which combines a writing surface with storage space for a small apartment; a writing table which can double as a sofa table.  There really is something for everyone.

Added value

The Louis XV style desk made of rosewood and tulipwood by Edward Holmes Baldock (1777-1845) owned by the 7th Earl of Lucan, who disappeared in July 1974 after the murder of nanny Sandra Rivett at the family home, was sold at Bonhams in 2009 for £13,200, nearly twice the amount it was expected to fetch.  Charles Dickens’ writing desk and chair, sold by Christie’s in 2008, fetched a jaw-dropping £433,250 (with proceeds benefiting Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.)   The cricket commentator, Brian Johnston’s desk, was sold by Bonhams in 2006 for £54,000.  Ownership - with provenance - by the famous and the infamous, adds value.  

 Top makers

The highest prices are fetched by good 18th century makers such as Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) London cabinet maker and furniture designer; William Marsh (1775-1810) and Thomas Tatham (1763-1818) cabinet makers in Mount Street, London; and William Hallett (c1707-1781) cabinet maker of St Martin’s Lane.

 Further reading

Portable Writing Desks by David Harris (Shire Books)

English Furniture by John Bly (Shire Books).


Antiquedesks.net -  This Article appeared in Period Ideas Magazine and was written by Margaret Powling & David Lawrence


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