Small and Very Desirable….Early 18th Century Bureau Cabinets

One of the wonderful things about dealing in antique furniture is that it is often possible to trace the evolution of a particular style by referring to pieces we have handled over the years. It is sometimes also possible to compare those pieces side by side in the gallery at the same time which is often of great interest to both collectors and furniture historians alike.

The subject of this post is a particular style of early 18th century bureau cabinet or bookcase that was made in various configurations from the beginning of the century until roughly 1730 or so. These particular pieces all share a distinctive narrow width that makes them not only extremely appealing aesthetically but also very useful in modern interiors which tend to be smaller in scale than their 18th century equivalents.

We have two of these exceptional cabinets in our collection and will also be making a reference to another from our archive which demonstrates another particular twist on the same basic configuration. Examples of this form have been highly collectible and have featured in many major collections and in all of the standard reference books on English furniture – they are however all rare survivals.

The rarest of the three is probably the green japanned example which dates to circa 1700:

We have covered the subject of japanning (a European process to imitate Oriental lacquer) before in previous blog posts but suffice it to say that green japanning is one of the rarest of all surviving colours. Aside from the quality of the surface decoration and the delicate gilded chinoiseries, the piece appears to retain its original bevelled Vauxhall mirror plate in the upper section and all of the original hardware which includes the drop handles and steel locks and hinges. It is raised on bun feet and has a charming moulding below the bureau section that is to be expected on a piece of this age. Secret drawers included of course!

Although all japanned cabinets are rare, it is the proportions of this piece that increase both its charm and rarity. Measuring only 25 1/4 in width and only 20 1/2 in depth, this cabinet is a very desirable size, combining wonderful quality and decorative effect within a small footprint.

From our archive, another rarity is a walnut version of a similar theme, circa 1715, that was produced as more of a bookcase with the mirror being replaced by plain glass, so the books on the shelves are easily visible without having to open the cabinet door:

Many of the feature of this piece are shared by the japanned example – the bun feet, central moulding around the waist and the same lovely proportions (again, just 25 1/4 in wide), and the concealed candle stand under the mirror or glass plate. The glazed door of this example is very unusual but there is a similar bookcase, with comparable proportions, in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and located in the European glass and ceramics gallery where it is used to display examples from their permanent collections.

The final example is in our current collection and dates to circa 1715. This one differs with its bracket, rather than bun, feet. The hardware is all original and the colour and patination of the burr walnut finish is exceptional:

This cabinet is firmly attributed to the London cabinet-maker John Phillips as it is virtually identical to an example with that maker’s label that is illustrated and discussed by Adam Bowett in his Early Georgian Furniture 1715 – 1740, p. 76. Sharing the same beautiful proportions as the other examples, this cabinet is actually a fraction smaller. It has the same moulding as those previously discussed, and again the candle stand, but an interesting and rare feature is the row of two small drawers directly under the bureau section rather than the more usual single longer drawer.

These three pieces are all of exceptional quality and interest to the collector of early Georgian furniture. Being able to compare these cabinets side by side in our gallery is a real pleasure, so please do get in touch if you would like to see them and discuss them further.


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