The furniture we choose to spend our day sitting in front of, writing, reading and working, has changed considerably over time. In this development of design and manufacture - and even the changing use - of pieces of household furniture you can follow the evolution of productivity and working practices from Medieval times to the present day.

Today we think of desks as large, flat surfaces which can accommodate a computer or laptop, folders, files and notepads, and usually incorporates some pull-out drawers to hold our pens, rubber bands, loose change, stamps and all the other detritus of everyday life. However, before this form of furniture developed properly, writing desks were small, transportable objects that could be brought out when they were needed and rested on a table top or in your lap, and consisted of a sloped surface that lifted up to reveal the paraphernalia needed for letter writing.

The sloped surface for writing – which is undeniably practical for anyone who has spent the day writing with pen and ink – can be traced back to at least Medieval times. Viewers of the BBC’s recent adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in a 14th century Benedictine abbey, would probably have noticed the large sloping desks in the abbey’s scriptorium, on which the scribes faithfully copied out and decorated manuscripts for endless hours. 

Writing Box, c.1525, © Victoria & Albert Museum

One of the most famous examples of this type is the table desk purportedly made for Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which consists of the ubiquitous hinged sloping lid for resting parchment on, and smaller compartments to hold the inks and quill. However, this desk strangely is made of such precious materials that it has certainly not been made for writing but instead as an ornamental object to be admired aesthetically.

Though generally in the eighteenth century the flat-topped writing table or desk took over as the predominant form, the practicality of a sloping writing surface endured and found new forms, such as the ‘Davenport’, which denotes a sloping surface, usually with a gallery around the edges, atop a bank of drawers or cupboard.

Ralph Edwards in the The Dictionary of English Furniture speculates the Davenport was a one-off design, commissioned from someone named Captain Davenport in the late eighteenth century, based on evidence found in the stock books of the top cabinetmakers Gillows of London and Lancaster. The portability of the writing slope and drawers also indicates its probable origin as a piece of campaign furniture. However, the design must have proved so useful and popular that the shape became regularly produced and copied by other cabinetmakers throughout the nineteenth century and the Davenport was soon a household staple.

A Victorian burr walnut davenport, circa 1840

One example is this fine early nineteenth century burr walnut Davenport currently on display in Reindeer. The hinged, sloping lid, rotating top and bank of drawers make this an endlessly useful, as well as attractive, piece of furniture.

Edwards also claims that flat-topped writing tables started to be seen around 1725. This is the kind of furniture that we would most readily associate with a desk now. A very early example, however, is the library table commissioned by the parliamentarian and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) that dates to the end of the seventeenth century, and survives in Magdalen College, Oxford. This desk has sham drawers on the pedestal which instead provide the sides of a glazed cabinet for storing large books.

Oak library table made for Samuel Pepys, circa 1670, © Magdalene College, Oxford

The pedestal desk with working drawers was soon to become a ubiquitous form. On show in Reindeer is a superb example of this: a mid-eighteenth century Chippendale period mahogany writing desk. It is of impressive enough scale and colour to act as a statement piece in library or study, and with no less that 17 oak-lined drawers, original swan neck handles and recessed castors is a superb testament to Georgian craftsmanship and utility.

A Georgian Chippendale period mahogany pedestal desk, circa 1760

As time passes so changes the functionality of furniture. A dressing table, for example, would have been the staple of any eighteenth century bedroom, on which to carry out the sometimes-lengthy procedures of your toilet, pen a letter or take a cup of coffee when you rise mid-morning. This early Georgian kneehole dresser or writing table currently in Reindeer is of exceptional quality, dating from around 1740 and in deeply rich mahogany. Its scale is compact, but the brushing slide makes an excellent writing surface, and unusually the kneehole is moveable to allow for more or less leg room depending on your height.

 A George II mahogany kneehole desk, circa 1740

This desk also has an eighteenth century maker or retailers label of ‘Lowdell’ affixed to the interior of the drawer which makes it a highly unique piece, and was formerly sold through the antiques department of Heal's on Tottenham Court Road (at the sign of the four poster bed). The label is also recorded in the owner of Heal's and furniture expert, Ambrose Heal's 'Dictionary of English Furniture Makers'.

Label for maker/retailer Lowdell of Blackman Street, Southwark





March 09, 2020 — Peter Alexander