Bureaux, Cabinets, Desks, Bookcases, etc

Endless varieties of writing, display and cupboard furniture were produced in the mahogany period, many of them being directly descended from the walnut proto­types. Bureaux followed very much the same development as contemporary chests of drawers. Mahogany was a favourite medium for these until Sheraton's time, as the figure of the wood, especially Cuban curls, made a fine show on the flaps and drawers (Plate 26). A newer development was the desk, which had taken its place in the rich man's library by 1750. This was usually solid in appear­ance, with side drawers or cupboards of similar proportions to the classical pedestals of early sideboards (see Tables). Plate 28 shows a desk of about 1760. Other kinds were serpentine-fronted and often had canted corners with rococo carving like the com­mode (Plate 30). Mahogany was particularly suitable for all kinds of library furniture, and both 'Hepplewhite and Sheraton stressed this in their design books. Sheraton, however, gave his bureaux a lighter appearance.

Many of them were intended for ladies' use, and he favoured the employment of s;itinwood. He also preferred the tambour or cylinder front instead of the flap. But what specially exercised the best Georgian cabinet-makers were the combined pieces-the bureau-bookcase, cabinet, press and their variations - which demanded the highest skill in design and decoration. Their size encouraged an architectural treatment. Such pieces in the walnut period had been topped by arched curves, but these were replaced in early Georgian times by forms of broken pediments, angular or swan-neck. The open space in the centre was filled with a carved piece, or left free. Kent emphasized his pediments, and used classical pilasters on the corners of the doors, with much gilding. Many cabinet-makers, however, preferred a simple straight cornice, and one effect of the wider use of mahogany was the return to a general lighter style. Pediments were retained but often their only decoration was carved dentil mouldings, also found on the cornice (Plate 25). Towards 1750 mirror plates on cabinet doors were going out of fashion. They gave way either to clear glazing or to panels of carefully-chosen mahogany framed in applied mouldings or in stiles (Plate 32) with curved inner edges.

The mid-century Gothic and Chinese fashions affected these pieces in several ways. The glazing bars of glass-fronted cabinets formed geometrical patterns or pointed arches. Carving or fret-work with similar designs was applied to the frieze and bottom edge of the cabinet, and to the frieze and feet of the bureau. A pagoda roof was some­times added, and the pediment was pierced with fret-cut outlines. Rococo treatment might be found in ornate carving or fine gilt mounts. Some of these designs were used with extravagance, but Plate 25, a mahogany clothes press of about 1760, is an excellent example of balance and restraint. The angular broken pediment has a dentil mould­ing on one edge, repeated on the cornice and plain central platform. The doors have cross-banded borders and incorporate two fine curl panels within applied astragal mouldings. A fretted frieze in Chinese style and carved paterae at the corners of the doors complete the upper decoration. The drawers have cock beading and the whole is supported on feet of cabriole shape. Loop handles without back plates were popular in the 17305.

Plate 26 shows a bureau-bookcase of the late eighteenth century. Below the plain cornice is a cpear-drop5 moulding, popular after 1770. There is a delicate key pattern at the central edge of the doors, along the top and bottom edges of the bureau, and on the uprights separating the small drawers within the flap. The curved apron piece and slender outward-pointing feet are characteristic of this particular period. The bureau drawers have notable matched curl veneers. Equally simple, despite its size, is the bookcase illus­trated in Plate 27. This is an example of break-front design. The glazing bars show the pointed Gothic arch. The whole piece is finely-proportioned and is built to bring out the beauties of the figure on the drawer fronts and cupboard panels. The octagonal handles in Plates 26 and 27 dated from about 1785. In the Regency period a feature of the book­cases, apart from the new forms of decoration, was their low height, to leave the walls above them free for pictures.


In the transitional period between walnut and mahogany the graceful Queen Anne hooped-back chair had become more pon­derous in appearance, with an emphasis on the carving of ornament. At the same time Kent was designing his elaborate chairs for wealthy clients, making use of walnut or mahogany partly gilt, or of softwoods en­tirely gilt, for scroll-shaped legs, or versions of the cabriole, and a great deal of flower, fruit and mask ornament. This vogue was passing about 1745, when mahogany really came into its own in chair design. The general effect was to re-emphasize form and propor­tion, and to initiate an era in which much ambitious splat-work became the fashion. Chippendale used the rococo, Chinese and Gothic motifs in a great variety of chair backs. The typical rococo chair consisted of a back framed by two outward curving side-rails meeting in a Cupid's-bow top (which had made its appearance some little time before Chippendale), usually with scrollwork on the corners, and the splat pierced with interlaced strapwork. The back legs tended to curve away noticeably.

The cabriole leg was lighter in treatment than the Queen Anne variety and the ball-and-claw foot, though it was found on many chairs, was sometimes replaced by the French knurl or scroll toes. (The scroll foot can be seen in Plate 293.) The famous 'ribband-back5 chairs showed mahogany carving and rococo decoration in perhaps their most dazzling forms, the ribbons and bows forming intricate patterns which in some chairs joined up with the side-rails (Fig. 4). This was an extreme form. In general, Chippendale avoided the excessive ornament of the Continental rococo. In some of his chairs he showed the craftsman's eye for a well-balanced design. These had care­fully restrained rococo carving in the splat, which tended to be narrower in shape, and straight legs, sometimes fluted, joined by plain stretchers, which were now being re-introduced on chairs of this type. The con­trast between straight legs and curved backs and the use of carefully-chosen upholstery for the seat (including plain leather) was pleasing. Plate zgA shows a Chinese chair, about 1755. The characteristic features are the pagoda cresting-rail, the splat pierced and carved with geometric patterns, the fretted work in similar designs on the back uprights, legs and feet, the cluster column legs, and the bracket between legs and seat.

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