Ladies' writing desks offer an elegant reminder of not too distant times when the work of servants left the lady of the house with ample time for correspondence


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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Expert Tip: Writing Desks

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Writing Desks


 Ladies' writing desks offer an elegant reminder of not too distant times when the work of servants left the lady of the house with ample time for correspondence

George IV flat top desk, ca. 1825-1840
George IV flat top desk,
ca. 1825-1840

 A middle-class Edwardian woman would spend part of her day writing letters and doing accounts.

 A household was like a small business, with employees and tradesmen to deal with, and this business was often run from a custom-built desk.

 Small, elegant writing desks have been made for women since the late 17th century.  One 19th-century favourite was the Carlton House desk, named for the Prince Regent's London home.

 It had a large writing surface with long drawers at each side of the top and shallow drawers or cupboards at the back.

Roll-top Computer Desk
from Marshall Fields
Click to buy

 The roll top was invented by the French ebeniste Jean-Francois Oeben in about 1760 and has remained popular ever since. Currently, roll top desks are very marketable as they remain a useful piece in any household.

 An equally practical alternative was the davenport desk, first made in the 1790s for an army captain of the same name.

 It has drawers to one side and dummy fronts to the other, and there is usually a rising section at the back containing further drawers and pigeonholes.

 Roll-tops and cylinder desks also first appeared in the 19th century, as did variations on the French bureau plat, or flat-topped desk.

 An Edwardian favourite was the bonheur du jour, developed in France in the 18th century and eagerly copied by turn-of-the-century British cabinetmakers.

 Essentially, it was a small table, with slender, tapering legs and one or two long, shallow drawers. A pullout writing surface and a bank of drawers and cupboards at the back completed the desk.

 The chores of writing letters to tradesmen and keeping up the household accounts were softened by being carried out in elegant surroundings at a handsome, well appointed desk, while the more pleasant task of writing letters to friends also took place there.

Recommended: HOW TO RECOGNIZE & REFINISH ANTIQUES FOR PLEASURE, 4th Editionby Jacquelyn Peake


 Victorian writing desks and bonheurs du jour lack the delicacy of early pieces, though they were probably mote functional. A feature introduced by the Victorians was a central, pivoting mirror, which also served as a fire screen.

George IV flat top desk, ca. 1825-1840
George IV flat top desk,
ca. 1825-1840

 Edwardian pieces copied Georgian and Regency styles, using more or less the same techniques as the 18th century makers.

 There was a wide variation in quality, but the best ones are excellent examples of the cabinetmaker's craft and can command good prices today.

 It is, however, fairly easy to tell most Edwardian desks from 18th-century originals. The key is in the materials used. Georgian veneers were cut by hand rather than by machine, and so are thicker.

 The basic wood used under the veneer, on what's known as the carcase of the furniture, isn't as good in later furniture. The Edwardian cabinetmakers tended to use cheap hardwoods, such as poor quality African mahogany.

 Hinges and screws on later pieces are invariably machine-made, while much of the carving was also done by machine and is correspondingly much shallower and more regular than that on earlier desks.

 When buying a desk to use, rather than look at, make sure that it is comfortable to sit at. Older desks are sometimes a little low for modern chairs.

 Always check the leather on writing surfaces for signs of wear. Sometimes it needs replacing, so look into the cost before you buy.

 The main thing to look out for in a roll-top desk is that the top rolls properly with a smooth action and no jarring. Sticking tops can be repaired though if a cylinder top has warped it will have to be replaced - but this will be costly and should reduce the price of a piece.

 Check too, that any drawers slide smoothly and evenly. It is unusual to find an old desk complete with its original key, but one can be cut by a locksmith; it is better to do this than replace the lock.

 Finally, remember that a certain amount of use adds character to a piece of furniture like a desk that should be well used, but any serious scrapes or knocks, ink stains, forced locks, inexpert repairs or replacements of parts, lifted or missing veneers, or loose joints should be reflected in a lower price.

 Desk drawers were generally decorated with inlays of exotic woods. Sometimes this took the form of simple bands of a contrasting colour, and sometimes more ornate scrolling marquetry was used.





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