Desks And Secretaries Part 5

About 1800, and a little later, what was known as the Empire style became fashionable, and was copied by both English and American cabinet-makers from French models. An American treatment of this style, which was originated under the fostering genius of Napoleon, is seen in Figure 281, which shows a large and handsome mahogany desk with bookcase combined. The combination of bookcase and desk, as I have said, had long been a favourite one; and though this book case is quite generous in size, those many sizes smaller would often be quite large enough to contain the limited number of books which answered for a library in Colonial days.

Even the ministers had but a few volumes, and they were considered the scholars of the community. I had occasion lately to look over a collection of books which were considered fit and proper reading for both young and old, particularly on the Sabbath days, when time hung heavy on then- hands, and a few of the titles will gh'e a fair idea of the character of the library, quite typical of the period. Increase Mather's " Angela- graphia " (1696); "The Loving Invitation of Christ to the Aged, Middle-Aged, Youth and Children, from the mouth of Elizabeth Osborn, only Three Years and Nine Months Old "; Owen's " Indwelling Sin "; Bax ter's " Call to the Unconverted "; Crawford's " Dying Shots Doddridge on " Regeneration," Stod- dard's " Safety of Appearing in ye Righteousness of Christ are some of the solemn titles."

Fig. 279 Writing Cabinet Fig. 280 Secretary Fig. 2 AND SECRETARIES.

 Fig. 282 Massachusetts Desk. Fig. 283 Empire Desks.

There was nothing that came under the head of light literature."

I have spoken in the chapter on Chests and Cup boards of furniture made in particular locations, or at least found there, and have shown both the Hadley and the Connecticut chest. In Figure 282 I give a picture "desk," of what is called the Massachusetts of which, recently, I have seen several examples. It does not seem a very convenient piece of furniture with that leg in the middle, but its great length must have made it possible for two persons to sit comfortably at it. This one is of mahogany, with carved legs and gilt mounts, and four shallow but wide drawers.

A desk somewhat resembling this is in the City Hall, New York, and there are quite a number in Boston and its vicinity.

To return to the bookcase-desk in Figure 281. It is about eight feet high, and the Gothic treatment of the doors makes them very ornamental. One of the marked peculiarities of this style of furniture was the use of metal mounts, made usually of handsome hand-worked or cast brass, and in finer pieces, of water gilt. Our cabinet-makers never let themselves be carried away by this florid style, and contented themselves in most cases with merely making the capitals at the tops of the pillars, ornaments, and sometimes the tips of the feet of brass. You will see them in this example. The lid of the desk folds back upon itself, and above it another lid SAAings out, revealing pigeon-holes.

The quiet simplicity of this desk is in marked con trast to the superb pieces shown in Figure 283. Every one of the splendid gilt ornaments on tliese desks is worth careful study.

There was only one man in England, and none here, aaIio could have designed such desks as these, and that was Thomas Hope, whose studies in Greek and Roman antiquities enabled him almost to vie with the ancients in the beauty and grace of his figures. His book, called "Costumes of the Ancients," brought him great fame; it was published about 1807, and remains to this day a source of inspiration to those whose taste leads them to antique models. When he designed furniture it was always after classical forms, and decorated with his incomparable figures and ornaments. While many of his designs were not comfortable to sit or recline upon, they were certainly very beautiful to the eye. There are few such desks as these in this country, or in fact to be found anywhere, and I give these merely as examples of what splendid furniture did find its way Over here.

There are other desks also, dainty affairs if for" use, standing on tall, slender legs, with sliding or tam bour " tops, as they were called, and a wealth of little drawers and cupboards, both revealed and secret. I know of one such which has recently been brought down from many and become the seclusion in the attic, furbished up, proud possession of a brand-new bride. But it lacks the elegance of olden days, for the modern cabinet-maker could not repair the tambour, an arrange ment of slender bits of wood which were so fixed that they were flexible — something like the modern roller- top desk.

These pieces were and always are the rare exceptions; and though they are occasionally found, they cannot be considered really representative of the furniture of our forefathers any more than the superb pieces shown in the last illustration.

It must forever remain a matter of regret that the best makers did not in some way mark their produc tions. Even had they done so, the study would not have proved of surprising ease, since there would always have been the fanciful maker who indulged his caprices, to cope with. With what delight we seize upon a piece which is dated, like one of the Bible boxes given early in this chapter; and with what regret we leave the unnamed and undated pieces as to whose exact time of construction hardly two people agree. In the study of French furniture, after the middle of the eighteenth century, the task became far simpler, for among sump tuary and other useless laws time was found to make an enactment which bade, in 1751, the maitre ebeniste to stamp all his work. In the great museums of France, where many of the art treasures are gathered, there are also examples of furniture stamped with the maker's name; and among the choicest are writing-tables, desks, and cabinets, all of the greatest beauty and elegance.

Nothing was spared to enhance the beauty of these gems of art; lacquer, water-gilt, inlays of tortoise-shell and coloured stones, — every fancy which the ebeniste could summon was brought to his aid. It was the age of polite letter-writing and of diaries, and the memoirs from which we glean so much of history, and even more entertaining gossip, was set down with a quill pen at some of these very dainty and costly secretaires.

They are to be bought here now, but very few came here a hundred years ago; so few that it was impos sible to find one of which the history was authentic of its being here when the nineteenth century opened. So the work of Riesener and of Boulle, of Cressent and of Caffieri has been omitted as being too scarce to be of importance in a book which deals with those house hold articles which were made or sold here, and which could be found in our homes in general.

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Source

The Collector's Manual by N. Hudson Moore, Amy Richards. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906.

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