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Bureaus

( Originally Published 1905 )



IN the eighteenth century the term applied to this article of furniture when it was not called a " chest of drawers " was bureau-table or bureau-desk, or even commode-table, since commode was the name given to them in France; and in Chippendale's first edition are many illustrations of what he calls " French commode-tables," which are bureaus mounted on low cabriole legs.

All the celebrated French makers lavished their choicest materials and elegant designs on these commodes, and were not so anxious to make a piece of furniture look like something else than what it really was as were their English contemporaries. Clothes press was another name we find applied to these bureaus on legs, and little by little the term bureau grew in use till it crowded out all the other names.

In the first Figure (308) may be seen a choice ex-ample of the French commode, style Louis XVth, made of veneered woods with water-gilt ormolu mounts. In the time of the Grand Monarch, as Louis XIV loved to have himself styled, the rooms of the palaces and residences of the nobility were so lofty and vast that it required enormous pieces of furniture to fill them. During the Regency of Philippe of Orleans, the nobility depleted by the extravagance of the previous reign, and wearied by the work of Le Brun and Boulle, which had become monotonous in the severity of its lines, demanded something new. Under the Regency the immense galleries disappeared, and the favourite room was the boudoir within whose modest dimensions the furniture of the previous reign could not find a place, so the call for something lighter and daintier was immediately felt. From. this period dates the form of commode which exists to-day as the bureau, and though the Regency was really but a period of transition, many articles survive which for beauty of form and graceful decoration cannot be excelled.

The task of the decorative designer of this epoch was by no means an easy one. This was the period of the elegant and dainty in art as well as furniture, and Watteau, Lancret, and Pater set the fashion to which the ébéniste had to rise, and where he had to struggle to asert his place. One of his first efforts was to break up the stiff and stolid lines of the furniture made by his predecessors, which was necessitated by its size. The watchword was no longer massive grandeur, but grace and elegance. One of the first moves was to bend the stiff leg; and here we see the introduction into France of the cabriole leg, which appeared on chairs, sofas, and commodes. This use was not original with the Frenchman, for it had prevailed for many years in different forms in Holland, Flanders, and England. The place of the metal marquetry was supplied by that of wood, which was used of various kinds and contrasting colours; and the opening of trade with China and Japan not only supplied the furniture workers with beautiful porcelain objects which could be inserted in the wood, but also with that exquisite Oriental product known as lacquer. This was used in panels and medallions in commodes and corner cabinets, and the contrast with dark-toned woods like tulip and king-wood was extremely rich. The metal mounts were made in long and sweeping lines, and set upon the furniture in such a way that they seemed an integral part of it, and did not interfere with its graceful lines and proportions.

The French ébéniste did not hesitate to combine many kinds of wood in the same piece, selected not only on account of their beauty, but for the way one made an admirable foil for one another. Age has given to these pieces a golden and mellow sheen, to which the perfect proportion of the piece lends but another charm. Even the changeable climate of the United States has but little effect upon these admirably made articles, and they are as perfect to-day as when they were first made. Within the last month I have seen exposed for sale in Rochester a lacquer table, red and black with cabriole legs and water-gilt mounts, which must be well over one hundred and. fifty years of age, and which, except for some damage to the top, is still as beautiful as when it was made. It shines out from the dingy window, where it is placed, with a compelling lustre ; and one feels almost compelled to buy it if only to give it a name, and recover it from association which must prove most painful to an object which once had its place among the exalted of France.

The commode in Figure 308 has a top of marble, green and cream in colour, which seems to bring out the beautiful reddish colour of the woods. Ornate as this piece seems, it was but plain in comparison to those masterpieces of the middle and late eighteenth century in France.

In England they contented themselves with copying and adapting the French models, and in Figure 309 is a pert little bureau-dressing table on Hepplewhite's lines. It makes one almost smile, for the likeness is sufficient to make one recognise instantly the model from which he took his inspiration. The plain and elegant lines of the French piece are completely spoiled, and the knee-hole recess was a favourite at this time in many kinds of fancy tables.

The next example, Figure 310, is a museum specimen and a very handsome piece of furniture. Yet when you come to study it, even though both the lower bureau part and the upper glass fronted cabinet are inlaid with that floral design which was so common in the middle of the eighteenth century, you feel that this piece is made up of unrelated parts. The most obvious discrepancy is the relative size of the two pieces. The bottom would carry easily a cabinet top of considerably larger size, and the top of the bureau part protrudes too much to be in proper proportion. There is a certain sharpness to the carving of the cornice of the bookcase portion, and the pattern of the moulding of the latter does not match with that on the base of the piece. This putting together of two parts in this very article of furniture is a favourite device with dealers, and is one of the places where a quick observation will help you to detect the lack of symmetry which should exist between the two parts. In none of the old books by any of the English or French cabinet-makers do I find an example like this, the usage being that the sides of the top part shall come flush with the lower part, and not have that shelf-like projection which is seen in this piece. I give this by way of an example of the many fake pieces which are bought in good faith, and then presented to the student as examples worthy of study. The lower part is a good marquetry kettle-shaped bureau of Dutch make, with good handles and massive feet. The sides are of plain walnut, and the back legs a simple bracket, as we usually find in furniture of Dutch or Flemish make.

Just when the making of furniture of oak ceased and walnut was substituted it is hard to say. It is easier to put a definite date to the beginning of the mahogany period, which was about 1720. Roughly speaking, the oak period extended from the earliest times of which we have record to the later Stuart times. The walnut lasted from the later Stuart period, say 1670 to 1720. Of course there were many cases of overlap, and sometimes you will find a slant-top bureau desk, which should belong entirely to the mahogany period, made either of oak or walnut. Oak bureaus are such an anachronism that they cannot be regarded as genuine antiques, although their forerunner, placed on legs with turned stretchers, is by no means unknown. Walnut bureaus with slant-tops, particularly those made of burr walnut, exhibiting a curiously knotted grain, are plenty enough; and we occasionally meet with regular bureaus of walnut also. Two are shown in Figure 311; one with a small Dutch foot and very elaborate handles, and the other with a block front. Neither of these are later probably than 1750, since the wood of which they are made and the style of handles are conclusive evidences of their age. The colour of old oak and old walnut, too, for that matter, depends largely on their treatment, and whether they have been subjected to the influence of smoke and dust. When the surface of a piece of old furniture comes to require what is called doing over," never allow dark stains or varnish to be applied. Beeswax and turpentine with a wad of flannel are the proper articles for the amateur ; and if the object on which you wish to expend, your care is a table top, and if it is not excessively damaged, a few drops of linseed oil and a brick sewed up in several layers of flannel are your best materials. Drop a little of the oil on the table, then smear it over the surface with a soft rag, and then begin to rub. It is in the latter process that success lies, and not in inundations of the oil. This same treatment is the best for the veneered walnut furniture of what we call " Queen Anne " period. If your piece looks very badly, and has suffered from too frequent applications of varnish, rub it lightly with fine sandpaper, which will remove the roughness, and then proceed with the linseed oil and polishing. This will eventually bring it to a better condition than the best French polishing, but it will not stand being stained with wine nor much water.

A curious instance of over-devotion to duty in this very line was brought to my attention the other day. A walnut table which had been in daily use in a dining-room for over sixty years had now passed on, through inheritance, to a young housekeeper who called in assistance to know what was the matter with it, and what could be done. It had been a good piece, built on plain and simple lines, but the top was worn in positive grooves, the softer part of the wood between the veins seeming to have been scooped out; otherwise the table was in good condition, and seemed to have had the best of care. The son of the house, whose mother had owned the table, finally, under his young wife's questions, told how its condition came about. It seems that his mother had a servant, one of the old-fashioned kind who lived long in one family, and that this girl had been taught that every day this table had to be rubbed with a waxed brush. She came into the family at the age of sixteen, and had lived with them over forty years; and being stout and carefully trained, she had literally rubbed this table to pieces in her desire to keep it always in the highest state of polish! If a cloth had been used it might have pulled through, but the brush under her vigorous hand was too much for mere wood. There was nothing for it but a new top, and now the rubbing has to begin all over, this time under less strenuous hands.

Too much beeswax and turpentine will produce a glassy surface, which seems to take away the feel of the wood. This is almost as much a mistake as too little polish. Potash and water will remove the surplus of coating; but then the process has to be begun again, and it takes a long time to bring it to the state of absolute perfection, that is, with neither too much nor too little polish.

Old oak has sometimes been degraded by being painted white. When this is the case it must be cleaned by scraping and potash cleaning. In the grain of the wood will probably remain some traces of the paint, giving it a silver grain, which it is nearly impossible to remove. In fact, if it is not too marked it had better be left, since at any rate it is a mark of age, and to remove it further would be beyond the scope of almost any amateur. In trying to detect old furniture from spurious imitations, if the piece is carved, pay particular attention to the state of the carving. Any piece of domestic furniture which has been in use will have the lines of the carving much worn away by the necessary dusting and the rubbing against it in passing it. There will be no hardness or sharpness, and the finer lines will be to a certain extent filled up with dirt, dust, and wax. The dents and scars are not always to be trusted, since " the foot of a master," as the French put it, could contrive to administer such signs of wear on an entirely new piece.

In many old pieces of furniture, particularly bureaus, the presence of the worm or beetle which riddles them is very unpleasant. In an old cherry bureau which I own, and which has nothing to recommend it but its capacious size, the worms are most annoying, covering with a fine dust the contents of the drawers, and working with a speed that in a single night produces quite a little pile of dust. The holes are elliptical rather than round, and the creature seems to take pleasure in making two or three of these so close together that they will sometimes merge into one large hole.

The commonest of these pests is the Anobium domesticum, and the larva or grub which works the greatest havoc is a trifle more than an eighth of an inch long. When the creature is in the beetle stage of its existence it is even smaller. Many times I have tried to gain a sight of these little fellows which are at work almost under my very hand; but though I sometimes hear the click of their jaws, which is called the " death-watch," I can see only the work, never the worker. They are seldom found in mahogany, seeming to prefer less dense wood, though they will occasionally be found even in that, if the article has in it an inferior piece of wood.

A fine mahogany piece is shown in the next Figure, 312, having a serpentine front cut from the solid wood, and carved ball-and-claw feet. The board top corresponds in its curves with the lines of the front,while the shell which is at the bottom is not commonly found in such a position. This bureau is made in two sections, the top part with the drawers fitting into the base with the legs. This was the way the upper part was set in the lower part of high-boys, and I am inclined to think that such pieces were made at about the time the high-boys became less called for. Many of the small bureaus have handles on the side for lifting them about, and I have seen them on walnut as well as mahogany pieces. The drawers of the bureau in Figure 312 have the narrow little moulding on the bureau and not on the drawer itself. The willow brasses are of the style which was in use as early as the first half of the eighteenth century, and continued in use for many years. Unfortunately one of the handles on this piece is missing.

A small bureau shown in Figure 313 has the over-lapping edge on the drawer, and is in the style used during the latter part of the eighteenth century. It is a plain piece of cherry, and very much less ornamental than the bureau shown in Figure 314. This is Hepplewhite with curly maple panels set into mahogany. There is a line of inlay of whitewood where the maple and mahogany join, and around each drawer is a single narrow moulding. The handles are of an unusual shape, and the escutcheons are of brass; and while the photograph gives the wood a stained appearance it is not so in the original, which is both choice and in the best condition. In fact it is one of the favourite pieces of a collector living in Vermont, who has a great house full of fine antiques which she has been many years in gathering. She apologised for the looks of the bureau, saying that the photograph did not tell the truth.

Both Hepplewhite and Shearer designed and made such bureaus as these, and they were successfully copied over here. They were substantial pieces of furniture, depending on the beauty of the woods put into them, and the good proportions of their lines for any beauty they might have. Only once have I come across a tall bureau like the one in Figure 315. It is not a high-boy, yet it is six feet tall, and I think was made for a special order. It is of solid mahogany except for a narrow veneered band about the drawers, also mahogany, and this band is defined by a thread-like line of whitewood. On the frame of the bureau are other lines of the inlay, and it has the graceful French foot which we always associate with the name of Hepplewhite.

The handles are round brass rosettes, very plain and solid, and altogether the piece is substantial and dignified. Every time I see it it seems more worthy than it did the time before, and yet for several years it has been looking for a home among articles suited to its age and merit.

On many of these bureaus were set little dressing-glasses, as they were called, set in a swinging frame, and with a few drawers below the glass to hold toilet articles. Madam Washington left, by will, to her son George, her " best dressing-glass," and at the sale of the furniture at Belvoir in 1774 he bought several glasses in gilt frames as well as dressing-glasses. At Mount Vernon now there is one of these glasses in the General's bedroom similar to the one shown in Figure 316.

This glass was said to be made about 1770, while the bureau is about the year 1810. These dressing-glasses were of many styles, and not alone wood, solid and veneered, was chosen to make them of, but Oriental lacquer ones are sometimes to be found. There are others also, painted in gold or colours on a black ground, and some are covered with beautiful inlay and are carved besides. For many years they were much used, and are mentioned, among glasses in " gold or choice mahogany frames," as on sale by 1750.

The bureau in Figure 316 is handsomely carved, with four pineapples at the tops of the posts and solid twisted pillars. The legs do not bear out the elegance of the rest of the piece, as they are but simple turned affairs, and rather detract from its appearance.

The drawers are solid mahogany with a simple moulding about them, and the rosette handles are of brass. This bureau has long been in the family which now possesses it; but there are many persons who long for such treasures and will buy them rather than not have them, though they admit that family heirlooms are the best after all. I know of a bureau like this, which was recently bought by one who has taken the disease of collecting, and who went through what might be called " experiences " in getting hold of it.

Little by little she had grown to be a collector, the first manifestations of the disease showing itself in the gathering of a few pieces of china, somewhat nondescript in character, and which came in diverse ways, some by gift and some by purchase. But the fever did not stop here; and as she had in addition the true collector's spirit and the faculty of finding "things " she went on, one step after another, till she was the proud owner of tables and chairs, desks and tabourets, lamps, girandoles, and other small articles too numerous to mention.

She laboured under disadvantages, too, for she was surrounded by a family whose chief ambition was to acquire new things, fresh of aspect and modern of form. The " antiques " which flowed into the house met with no appreciation, save from choice spirits like herself, who met and gloated over them, and wished they, too, could secure like bargains.

Then at last she had a house of her own to put them in, and those who came to scoff remained to admire, and the charm of the old furniture in its harmonious and artistic setting impressed even the Philistine whose taste had hitherto led him to admire those abominations known as " mission furniture," or the crude patterns which are foisted on a long-suffering public, many of whom, it is true, know no better than to admire.

Imagine the pleasure of our collector with all her possessions set out and well rubbed up; for after getting one of these elderly treasures the first thing to do is to put it in prime condition, and then consider how the thirst for more worlds to conquer must have devoured her. She did not depend only on her own unaided efforts to locate finds," but had scouts from every rank of life out on her war path for her. " Butter and egg women " were questioned, the milkman was interrogated, and no chance clew was allowed to go uninvestigated.

So many pieces were hers at last, that the only thing she really " must have " was a bureau, and the outlying districts were laid under contribution to supply one. At last, after months of patient waiting, one was heard of through one of the scouts, — its carved feet and posts duly described, — and our collector felt that have it she must, though she had not seen it. To tell the truth, it lay in the country, seven miles from her home, and as there were other " fiends " in the place where she lived ready to snap up any trifles which became noised about, she concluded to go and get it. Upon due reflection it seemed best to go in some vehicle which would bring back the bureau ; so in her enthusiasm she started for that drive of fourteen miles, seven out and seven back, in a springless wagon, her only seat being a board set on the sides. The littlest of her dogs was taken along for company and to keep him out of mischief, and on a bright autumn morning she started.

As they neared the house where the treasure was the collector's heart rose in her mouth.

" What 's this," she asked of the driver; " a funeral? " " No," said he; " don't think so."

" Oh, can it be an auction? she cried, acute despair in her mind as visions of the bureau being snapped up by some one else rose before her imagination.

" No, don't seem to be that neither," drawled the driver, who could not be expected to be so keen on the scent.

When she got into the yard this is what resolved itself before her eyes: an old lady in her Sunday best sat in a large arm-chair. Near her was a cow with the milking-stool and a milk pail, a man holding up her head, while at a little distance sat an artist painting the scene. The rest of the family, and such of the neighbours as could leave their chores, stood around in an admiring circle.

" Ain't it lovely? " asked one, as our collector drew near. " Ma is having her portrait painted with the cow. Her cow died about a week back, and it seems as though Ma could n't get along without some picture of her, so we borrowed a cow from one o' the neighbours, and he 's a paintin' it just lovely! "

At this moment, from the group gathered around the artist, rose sounds of eager discussion.

" No," said one, " I tell ye that 's all wrong. She did n't have no spot there, it was lower on the flank."

" You 're wrong yourself, Abram; 't was on the other side that spot was." And it was then explained to our collector that the defunct cow was a black and white spotted one, while the borrowed one, which was standing as model, was of the " plain-red" variety, and the artist was putting in the spots according to the memories of the family, which did not agree on the location of a single one of them.

All this time our collector was on needles and pins to see the bureau, and at last diverted enough attention to herself to get one member of the family to detach herself to show it to her. It was down in the cellar, and when she saw it her heart swelled. It was mahogany, sure enough, with carved posts, and carved feet too, though the latter had been unscrewed to allow it to be put in the cellar. She made an offer which was accepted, and the heavy bureau was brought up and was being loaded into the wagon when it caught the artist's eye. " What," he cried, " you will sell that for (naming the sum) ? Why, I 'd give you (naming a dollar more) for it."

Consider what a moment of agony for our collector!

She assisted as best she could, by pushing the drawers into the wagon, seizing the dog and climbing in also, and bidding her Jehu in a hurried voice to start right away. She thought her prize was to be wrested from her, and did not feel easy until she was well out of sight of the farmhouse, the artist, and all the rest.

What though the ride home was long and hot? What though the lack of springs became every moment more apparent to her tired frame, and that the dog was restive, and that she was sorry that she had started with-out a hat? To banish all these miseries it was but necessary to glance at the prize before her, to stroke its satin sides, and to consider where it would show to the best advantage when, rubbed and restored, it should rise in its old-time beauty. The village street which led to her home was long and straight ; and as she rumbled down it in the bright afternoon she was espied by a party of her friends assembled to play bridge, and among them were several rival collectors who rushed out to see what she had secured.

Do you think she was amply repaid for her pains when she displayed her treasure? If you don't, then you do not know what the pleasures of collecting are, and had better stick to your " parlour suites," and get your household goods by the half-dozen from the nearest factory.

A rather unique piece, to which it is difficult to assign a period, is shown in Figure 317. It is of solid mahogany, richly carved with the full-length figures of two of the apostles. These figures seem to take the place of the usual carved pillars,. but you will notice on the base of each figure a small pointed wooden knob. This pulls out, and when it is removed the figure on its base swings back, revealing two narrow but deep cupboards. The bureau is said to have come from a monastery, and the cupboards were used for holding the wine used on the altar. The carving is sharp and little worn, but the handles are of an early pattern, and the recessed Gothic panel in the upper drawer is unusual. In deciding the age of a piece of furniture it is always necessary to take into consideration for what purpose it has been used, and its situation. Churches and cathedrals, though few buildings have suffered more from the depredations of the ignorant and the profane as well as the innovators lacking taste, often contain other furniture besides the chests, chairs, and tables which we expect to find in them. Articles which have stood for many years in such places are much less worn and defaced than those of equal age which have been in domestic use, though, unfortunately, there are doubtful pieces in sacred edifices as well as everywhere else.

You cannot base your deductions as to age upon the wood used by cabinet-makers as the base to which they applied veneer, for a chest of drawers may be of walnut veneered on oak, except the fronts of the drawers, which would be probably on some lighter wood. In old oak and early walnut furniture the parts will fit much less accurately than in furniture of a later period, when the cabinet-makers used mahogany and made from seasoned wood the choice pieces which are so admirable even to-day.

Spanish mahogany is the choicest variety of this fine wood, Honduras mahogany or baywood being distinctly inferior in colour and weight.

The subject of handles has been gone into at some length in the " Old Furniture Book," and they will have to be mentioned here very briefly. Iron was the metal used for the oaken furniture, the locks and hinges often being elaborately wrought. When mahogany came on the field brass was used for handles and escutcheons. There are chests and cupboards dating to the fifteenth century still existing, and these show handles of iron, in pattern a ring dropping from a flat wrought rosette or a round plate. Drop or bail handles, smaller at the top than at the bottom, are found on furniture of the next period, and these are also of iron. With the opening of the eighteenth century a solid pear-shaped drop takes the place of the bail handle of iron, and is most frequently of brass. As the century advances the bail handle becomes the ordinary one in use, the metal plate from which it hangs being first incised, with irregular outline, then pierced ; while from the Chippendale period it was wrought, or pierced with more or less elaboration, having regard to the piece upon which it was to be placed. With the advent of Hepplewhite and Sheraton the plate from which the handle hung took a round or oval form with a bail handle. The plate was decorated with a beehive, stars, a lion, or various devices, and they also used the lion's head with a ring hanging from its mouth. Glass handles came in after the beginning of the nineteenth century, and to my taste are always a disfigurement to a rich piece of mahogany. Battersea enamel knobs with heads or scenes upon them were occasional, but are now few and far between, and it is hard to find enough to fit out a bureau. I do know of six, all bearing portraits of American heroes, which are fitted on the three drawers of a charming little mahogany writing-table.

A bureau of mahogany with a tall swinging glass is shown in the next figure, 318. It is not a common pattern, and has fine carved pillars and a cylinder front drawer. The front feet are carved to match the pillars, but the sides of the mirror and the posts which hold it are quite plain. It would seem that the mirror was a later addition, except for the fact that it is set in the top of the dressing drawers, and screwed in.

In Figure 319 is a commodious bureau-desk with the central portion of what is usually the top drawer letting down on a brass quadrant, and forming a writing-desk. The two deep drawers at the side are fitted for wine, and so wide is the top that this object would seem to be almost as suitable for a sideboard as a desk or a bureau. It is partly veneered, and shows a deep, rich, reddish-brown colour with those fine whirling veins which are so popular. It was probably made about the time of the other Empire furniture, say from 1800 to 1820. Its history is not known, but it was rescued and restored, and sent up from the South, where so many fine pieces of furniture are still to be had. I am constantly receiving letters from all the Southern States, telling of antiques of one kind and another which are owned there. Some of them are amusing, some are pathetic. One of the former was from a woman whose husband was evidently well-to-do, who wrote me and sent me photographs of some really splendid things. There were elegantly carved chairs in Chippendale's ribbon-work pattern, carved four-poster beds, a table of solid mahogany with claw feet, and some " old blue " platters with those fine Cambridge views on them which would bring distraction to the ordinary collector. For years these things (which had belonged to her husband's family) had sought an inglorious refuge in the attic, but had recently, owing to articles on the subject meeting her eye, been brought down, and set out in the parlour. No, she would not sell, though large prices were offered her. Fortunately she found out in time what her treasures were worth.

One of the many pathetic letters was from an old lady of eighty, who asked my assistance in selling two linen sheets, two pillow-cases, and an old hair trunk! It is consoling when your readers have faith in your ability to serve them; but sometimes too much faith is almost as bad as too little !

The last bureau of all, 320, is also a derelict from the South. It has carved and incised work on it, and glass knobs. These are of the opalescent variety, which are even more staring than the plain white ones. This bureau was intended to have a little dressing-glass stand upon it, and was made in the opening years of the nineteenth century. It is in excellent condition, and is almost large enough to keep the belongings of a whole family safely. This and the one preceding it are some of the last utterances of what might be called the American mahogany period. Then came the black-walnut age, which had nothing to recommend it, and which was responsible for the wholesale destruction of one of our finest native trees. Nobody displays black walnut furniture now who can get any thing else to take its place. Looking at the patterns in which this furniture was made, the unmeaning carvings with which it was plastered, and the bad lines and proportions, one can be quite sure that there will be no revival of it, as there has been of mahogany, and the best thing to do with it is to " pass it along."



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