A plethora of Secret Compartments in a Charles II Escritoire
When I first saw this fabulous escritoire some 15 years ago I was amazed at the complexity and outstanding quality of this example. My conservation foreman and I spent many hours exploring the inner workings of this and enjoying the sheer pleasure that items of this ilk bring with them. The escritoire as a piece of furniture is derived from its continental counterpart and gained favour in Britain with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Charles II’s mother was French and he spent a decade in exile in France bringing both French tastes and craftsmen with him to England on his return.
Dating of this piece to about 1680 is aided by two important details. The drawers to the base all have side runners which is an indication of early construction methods and the bottom moulding to the top is retained on the top which by about 1690 had become the top moulding of the base with the top sitting within it.
One cannot escape the brilliance of the burr walnut used throughout this piece and to see it either closed or open causes gasps of dismay. This would have been the most select and therefore expensive of veneers available to the London Cabinetmaking trade at that time. These veneers would have ranked alongside imported Kingwood for expense and would only have been used on the very finest of pieces. Careful selection and positioning of these gems gives the patterns which we see everywhere within bandings of featherbanding and mouldings of cross-grain section.
Another fascinating feature of this is that normally one expects to see a large convex moulding immediately above the fall-front but this has a concave moulding and try as you might, it doesn’t slide forward as the more typical bible or map drawer that we are used to. Instead, that whole section is hinged from on top and once released by a catch from inside, folds up to reveal a series of pigeon holes.
The maker must have held his client in high regard as he also supplied a slide-out loper to support this avoiding any possibility of it slamming shut causing a fatal blow to the owner’s skull! Each of the three sections of walnut pigeon holes slides out to reveal an arrangement of eight further drawers in total.
Having whetted your appetite, it will come as no surprise to now see the piece with the fall front opened and just look at the figuring and grain again.
The baize lined centre panel of the fall is hinged and rises as a book stand and you can see the fourteen drawers all arranged around the central double doors which open to reveal a further removable section of 6 graduated drawers secured in position with a hidden wooden bolt.
You would not be wrong to assume that this must have been made for someone of great wealth as the cost of making such a perfect item would have been astronomical at that time and lining all the pigeon holes in Walnut along with the use of these choice burr walnut veneers would have cost a pretty penny. Then consider all these hidden compartments none of which would have been accessible without the magic key – what did the owner want to hide or was this the 17th. Century equivalent of a safe? It cannot have simply been a question of keeping private items away from the prying eyes of staff. Certainly gold coins, gems and jewellery spring to mind but if this was a person of high rank, possibly for state papers, medals, wills and testaments.
If one removes the central wide drawer and the dustboard on which it runs, access can then also be obtained to further secret compartments by sliding the floor of the inside forward and releasing two spring-loaded walls to reveal more drawers.
All told, the inside of this escritoire contains some 40 drawers and secret compartments which could have contained a veritable fortune or treasure trove for its owner in the 17th. Century. Suppose this was your cabinet, how would you have kept track of which items or papers you had confined to which drawers or hidden compartments? Imagine being summoned to attend the King and not being able to find the appropriate regalia, medal or item of jewellery! Maybe that is why each of these drawers has a paper tab with a note written on there describing the correct location for it. This may not have been so much to ensure that each drawer went back into the correct space but maybe the owner had a little black book listing each drawer by location and referring to the contents of that drawer, a logbook or inventory of sorts.
One of the great pleasures of being a traditional Antiques Dealer is the long term friendships we have with so many people across the World. As circumstances change and they move home, from time to time pieces return from whence they originally came and this is just such an example. After 15 years in a wonderful private collection, it was like seeing a dear old friend again after an absence when this returned to 86 Corn Street just recently. I am delighted to have such a star piece here in my showrooms and to use it regularly.
David Harvey is a well known Antiques Dealer who owns WR Harvey & Co (Antiques) Ltd, in the bustling Cotswold market town of Witney, Oxfordshire. He has a life long passion for fine antique furniture and works of Art. You may very well see him at prominent Antiques Fairs up and down the UK but you will always be more than welcome to call in and see him at the shop. His other passions include rowing and down-hill skiing.