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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Colonial Desks



THE Colonial desk, whether sedate Governor Winthrop, elegant tambour or simple slant-top design in maple, is finding an increasing number of admirers as intelligent appreciation of Colonial furniture becomes more widespread. The adaptations of a few years ago are now replaced with much closer copies of eighteenth century forms-still pre. Eminent as examples of good design and fine cabinetry. So popular have Colonial desks become that accurate reproductions may be obtained for comparatively small sums, while duplicates of the finest examples of cabinet work are constructed as well as when Chippendale had his shop in St. Martin's Lane in London. This popularity has, of course, reacted upon the antique examples so that old pieces are eagerly sought and museum pieces are sold for thousands of dollars.

One small but intriguing feature, which the reproductions lack but which some of the old examples had, was the secret drawers. These were most ingeniously constructed and every cabinetmaker had several pet methods of making them. Sometimes a whole section of pigeon holes comes out, either to disclose the drawer back of it or a partition that must itself be opened by a secret spring. The carved pilasters which ornamented the sides of the center pigeon hole often concealed a narrow space for papers, but as this method became rather too well known we find other secret drawers combined with such concealed spaces.

A popular type of Colonial desk is the Governor Winthrop. This desk with its graceful serpentine front and ample drawer space is a most convenient as well as a charming piece of furniture. Another form of this type of desk is found with the curve of the front reversed-that is, instead of the curve bulging out at the ends with the center depressed as in the other type, the center curves outward.

Desk forms of Colonial days all have a certain unity of general design with highboys, lowboys and chests of drawers. In all of these pieces of furniture we find the serpentine fronts, the block fronts and the fronts that are straight. Also the same type of short ball and claw legs, cabriole legs or bracket feet are common characteristics of all.

The secretary desk-also known as a scrutoire-was a desk with a top piece consisting of shelves enclosed either by panelled doors or doors of glass, the type of door mak ing it either a cabinet or a book case. In the eighteenth century these top portions were generally made detachable. Handles are sometimes found on the sides of both the top and bottom sections as another aid to moving. Sometimes an antique specimen is discovered with the top portion in a surprisingly new condition compared with the timescarred desk part. This, however, may be accounted for by the fact that .the original owners sometimes took off the top and stored it away.

More typical of Colonial desks than of any other piece of furniture is the block front style of cabinetry. Luke Vincent Lockwood in his "Colonial Furniture" gives the opinion that the block front probably originated in America. New England, the source of so much of the furniture made in Colonial times, was also the place where the best and largest number of examples have been found. Although apparently the block front desk was made all over New England, the work of John Goddard of Newport, Rhode Island, has come down to us enshrined with all the fame of a master. Whether he constructed all the pieces attributed to him is another of the unsolved problems in the field of antiques. There is a group of block front secretary desks that, in their excellence as well as their individual style of cabinetry, seem to have been made by the same person. These all trace back to Rhode Island. The Goddard style is recognized by, among other characteristics, as Charles Messer Stow in "The Antiquarian" has pointed out, a distinct Queen Anne feeling in the cabriole or curved style of the short legs, the shell carving found at the top of each block section as well as elsewhere, the high sweep of the broken-arch top and the quaint Dutch air about the pieces that were made when the Chippendale style was being sedulously followed by other cabinet makers.

Mahogany, of course, is the favorite wood of the buyer today as it was in the great furniture-making period of the eighteenth century. For interiors where maple furniture is desired, there are interesting maple and pine desks as well as desks in cherry and other fruit woods made in the countrysides a hundred years or so ago. Secretary desks in maple of antique origin are very scarce. In spite of being made in what was in those days a second choice of wood, there have been some maple desks found that were very fine pieces of cabinet work and dignified examples of design. Walnut desks and secretaries of Colonial days are also occasionally found, especially through the South where the reddish Virginia walnut that looks something like mahogany was popular.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century desks and secretaries in the daintier mode of the Heppelwhite and Sheraton style were made in this country and some fine pieces imported from England. The tambour desk with its cleverly arranged sliding cover-a much daintier form of desk than the earlier more robust types, was developed about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In mahogany with inlay of satinwood, the tambour desk is one of the most charming pieces of writing furniture that have come down to us.



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