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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Expert Tip: Bureau Cabinets

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 Secretaire and bureau bookcases and cabinets often brought out the best in 18th-century cabinetmakers, and include some of the most well-designed and handsome furniture of any period

The combination of a piece of writing furniture with a bookcase or display cabinet typified the 18th-century love of letters and literature and produced furniture that is still much appreciated today.

 Bureaux developed early in the 18th century, the result of combining two furniture forms the chest of drawers and the writing desk. The latter was a portable box, made for table-top use, which had a drop-front enclosing a number of small drawers around a central cupboard. In the 17th century these boxes were sometimes mounted on a fixed stand and known as scriptors.

 After 1690, the vertical drop-front was replaced by a gentle slope, and the scriptor stand acquired some drawers. A kneehole space between the drawers soon disappeared. The bureau shape we know today, a chest of three or four drawers with a slope-fronted fitted desk above, was established by 1710.

 It did not take long for this elegant piece of study or drawing-room furniture to be augmented with a fitted cabinet providing storage display space above the bureau. Before about 1740, storage was the more common use. The upper section was enclosed by one or two panelled or mirrored doors, and contained drawers and other storage compartments rather than just shelves.


 After t us date, it became more usual to have the upper section shelved, with glass-fronted doors protecting the contents. Though it's tempting to think of all such pieces as bookcases, the shelves were just as often intended for valuable pieces of oriental porcelain. There was a groove along the back of the shelves so that plates could stand upright in them.

 A variation of the bureau bookcase was the secretaire bookcase, identical in purpose but with a single design difference; the writing area was kept behind a vertical false drawer front, rather than a sloping drop-front. Secretaire bookcases were popular in the Chippendale period (1750-1770), and again in the Regency, when many neat, compact, space-saving designs were introduced.

 After the Regency, there were no new advances in the design of bureau furniture. During the 19th century, the vagaries of fashion meant that old pieces were often taken apart and reassembled in various different forms, while the desire for new furniture was satisfied by the making of reproductions.


 You're unlikely to find a genuine 18th-century bureau furniture outside a reputable dealer or an auction house. When buying from any other source, be particularly careful to avoid fakes and marriages, common with most two-part furniture, but especially so in this field, where changing fashion throughout the 19th century led to many Georgian pieces being taken apart to make cabinets on stands and plain bureaux.

 Apart from the usual tests you can apply, you should make sure that various details are right, and all of the same period. One of these dating details is the style of the cornice. A triangular broken pediment was common from 1725 on, while swan-necks came into fashion about 1750. Both these styles might have a vase, bust or other finial in the centre.

 From 1780, straight cornices, usually with dentil moulding, became fashionable, and Regency taste ran to straight cornices topped with highly-carved scroll work. Any of these styles, of course, could appear on pieces made any time after they were first introduced.

 Another thing to check is the way the shelve are fitted. Before 1730 the side supports w ere usually strips of wood glued to the sides.  After this date they were usually cut into the side of the cabinet. From the Regency on, the common practice was to support shelves on wood or metal pegs placed in a series of holes in the side of the cabinet, allowing the shelf heights to be adjusted.

 Early pieces tend to have ball and bun feet and be made of oak or deal with a walnut veneer. After 1740 mahogany was in almost universal use, and bracket feet were much
more likely to be used. Clear glass with glazing bars, as opposed to mirror doors, dates a piece to the mid-century or later.

 From 1780 on, the bureau drawers were often faced by a pair of cupboard doors or replaced by doors enclosing shelves. The upper glazed cabinet tended to be smaller in relation to the overall size of the piece and the glazing bars - in the 18th century always arranged in arching, curving patterns - tended to be lighter. From 1800 on, the glazing bars were increasingly arranged in diaper (diamond) patterns; sometimes the glass was replaced by brass grilles.

 Satinwood was sometimes used instead of mahogany, and sometimes to complement it. Inlay of classical motifs was mainly a feature on Regency pieces of furniture.




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