ESSENTIAL FACTS ON DESKS
Over the years, writing desks have taken many forms, some more valuable than others, and they have become one of the most commonly faked and altered pieces of furniture.
Writing furniture was first made for the home rather than the schoolroom or office,
and ranges from tiny, delicate ladies' writing tables to big secretaire bookcases. Between the extremes are desks. There are five basic types; the kneehole desk, the pedestal desk, the Canto House desk, the Davenport and the roll-top desk.
The first, the kneehole desk, was developed around 1710, originally as a piec of gentlemen's bedroom furniture, a dressing table with a writing surface. The typical kneehole desk had one or three shallow drawers across the top and three deeper ones down each side of a central recess. In the recess - known as the kneehole, but not fitting everyone's knees there was a cupboard, originally intended for boots and shoes.
Most 18th century kneehole desks had six bracket feet - four at the front, two at the back - others four. Four-footed desks have often been faked by remodelling chests of drawers; check the drawer edges for equal wear on both sides.
The kneehole desk's popularity has always rested on its compact shape and elegant proportions rather than its practicality. The first type of desk which most people could get their legs under was the pedestal desk, which evolved in the mid-18th century.
ON A PEDESTAL
Pedestal desks were built in three pieces; two pedestals, each with two or three deep drawers, supported a heavy top, which had a large leather writing surface, fixed with studs and framed in cross-cut veneer. There were three
shallow drawers ranged side by side beneath the top.
A variation, the partners' desk, was made for two people to use at once. The top is correspondingly larger, and there are half-depth drawers opening from both sides of the pedestal.
Because they were made in three parts, pedestal desks are particularly susceptible
to marriages. Made sure the veneers match all over. There are plenty of fakes, too. One trick is to make a pedestal desk out of a damaged kneehole desk. These can be recognized by the new timber or new veneer on the inside of the pedestals.
Roll-top desks, where the top is covered by a quarter or half-round lid that goes back into the desk, come in two types. Cylinder desks have tops made of many long, narrow pieces of timber, fitted together, planed smooth and veneered, while tambour desks have slats glued to a piece of stiff fabric. Some tambour tops have a serpentine rather than rounded shape.
There were usually small drawers mounted at the back of the desk-top, and drawers beneath. On some early examples, opening the roll-top causes the writing surface to move forwards.
Because Victorian and Georgian desks tended to be used in a domestic setting, they were made to harmonize with quality drawing-room furniture.
Many reproduction pieces were made in the Edwardian period. Roll top desk for use in offices were mass produced between the world wars. These can be distinguished by their drawer linings, which are made of ply rather than the oak or mahogany that was used in 18th and 19th century pieces.
FIT FOR A PRINCE
The Carlton House desk, first made for the Prince of Wales's home at Carlton House Terrace in the 1790s, represented a new departure. Most of the storage space was on the desk-top itself
arranged in two tiers around the back and sides. There were shallow drawers in the apron, and four legs shaped in a contemporary style. Most had tops more than 1.5m/5ft in width. Smaller ones tend to cost more.
Carton House desks were never carved; all the visual appeal was in the veneers, inlays and occasional metal mounts They fell out of favour in Victoria times, but enjoyed a revival in the Edwardian period. These later examples were rarely of the same quality as the extremely valuable Regency ones; painting replaces much of the in ay work and cheaper veneers were used. Sometimes a third tier of drawers and pigeon-holes was added.
The original Davenport desk was also made in the 1790s, by Gillow of Lancaster, to the specification of a Captain Davenport, who wanted a compact, free-standing piece to use in the cramped confines of a ship. A writing slope was set on a pedestal; the drawers opened to one side, though dummy fronts often appeared on the other for the sake of symmetry.
Regency examples tend to have rather severe lines. Sometimes the slope slides forward on runners, and sometimes it swivels to one side. Most
Regency examples had bun feet. In the 1820s it became common to have a fixed slope supported by turned columns rising from a plinth.
Good Victorian Davenports are in well-figured and carved walnut or in unusual veneers such as tulipwood, kingwood and amboyna. The front supports were highly carved, often in double curves. After 1860, 'piano lid' tops, from which the writing slide could be pulled out, appeared. Later examples sometimes had a couple of drawers mounted above the slope.
Value is added by brass inlay and stringing and various mechanical contrivances such as lifting tops and hidden drawers. Davenports were mass produced in the Victorian era in pale woods such as bleached oak and Virginia walnut; the elaborate design and decoration seen in the best Victorian pieces tends to appear merely fussy in these desks.
TO RECOGNIZE & REFINISH ANTIQUES FOR PLEASURE, 4th Edition by Jacquelyn Peake