When we think of an antique roll-top desk, because of its fairly mechanical construction, we usually consider them to be a modern concept or, at the very most, early 20th century. It is true that this particular style of desk became very popular during the 1920s when many houses in Britain had them, but this antique desk as a bureau à cylindre, the earliest form of roll-top desk, was being made in France during the reign of Louis XV (1723-1774).
The original desk was made by a German born cabinet maker, Jean François Oeben, with his pupil J H Riesener who made the desk for Louis XV. The roll-top desk remained popular and continued to mirror the fashions of the time. Rococo examples were produced during the reign of Louis XVI for example and decorated heavily with marquetry. This style was picked up in England by both Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite who both considered the tambour, or drum top, very elegant and the whole a convenient piece of furniture. Sheraton advertised a mahogany example of the desk in his Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 where the tambour elegantly slid down the back of the piece as a writing surface was mechanically pushed forward.
Many of the ‘modern’ 1920s versions of the desk continued to copy earlier pieces, some of which produced a lighter more feminine version of this popular desk. The French again, however, produced the finest examples of the time. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann made a fabulous macassar-ebony roll-top with slender legs that was shown at the 1925 Paris exhibition.
If buying an antique desk in Lancashire or Cumbria, local dealers will be able to give you some advice.
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