Saturday, December 21, 2013

Antique writing furniture

Until the middle of the 17th century items of furniture used for writing were often extremely primitive. The first writing furniture specifically designed as such was derived from French and Italian furniture of the 16th century, and took the form of a cabinet (with a fall front) on a chest or stand, with drawers, known today as escritoire. The front of the cabinet could be let down to serve as a writing surface, hence the term "fall-front escritoire".
Lady´s escritoire, England, George III
The escritoire was popular on the Continent of Europe, although not in America, throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century. In England its popularity was fairly short-lived.

The bureau, basically a desk with a hinged flap that folds up when not in use, was widely manufactured in England from the early 18th century and remained in fashion until the end of the first quarter of the 19th century. Styles and quality varied from simple country pieces to much more sophisticated pieces made for fashionable townhouses. Bureaux were made in a number of woods, but most are in oak, walnut or mahagony; some were decorated with lacquer or marquetry. A bureau could be converted into a dual-purpose item by adding a bookcase or display cabinet.

Oak secretaire cabinet

Early bureaux were made in two parts - a bureau top and chest base, each with carrying handles and a 'waist' moulding to cover the join. The moulding was retained even after bureaux began to be made in one piece, but was finally dropped c. 1720. 

Antique escritoire

The bureau and bureau bookcase were common in America, based on English designs but with influences from the Continent such as the block front and the bombé form, features rarely found in English cabinet making. On the Continent, bureau bookcases were regarded as status symbols and, as such, tend to be more ornate than English ones.

Escritoire, John Mayer (1667-1743)

As bureaux were intended to stand against the wall, the backs were made of a secondary wood and invariably quite coarse and unpolished.

French antique writing desk 

After the bureau the two main forms of writing furniture are the secretaire bookcase (or cabinet), a variant of the bureau bookcase, and the pedestal desk, both of which were common in the second half of the 18th century. From the last quarter of the 18th century other forms were introduced - for example, the writing table, the small ladies' writing desk known as the bonheur-du-jour, and the davenport.

Davenport writing desk
All writing furniture is highly sought-after. Items of a small size and good quality command the premium. Some 18th and 19th century bureau bookcases are so large that they are not practicable for today's smaller rooms, and therefore not so collectable.

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