Box House Antiques

Antique Bureaux – A Brief history

A brief history of antique bureaux

Antique bureaux are pieces of furniture which always have a writing function. More usually referred to in England as a ‘fall front’ bureau.

Originally it was a simple box with sloping, hinged lid which had evolved from a ‘bible box’. This was transformed later into a writing slope on legs or on a separate stand. It was later placed onto of a chest of drawers to become the bureau that we recognize today.

‘Bible boxes, precursors to bureaux, first appear Ca. 1600 to house valuable books and documents including a bible. The slope would function as a book rest with an applied moulding for this purpose. The applied mouldings are often lacking in antique bureaux slopes today.

Early examples, as you would expect, were of simple construction becoming more fashionably carved after about 1650.

These were almost always in oak but rare examples in walnut do exist. Some  incorporate inner divisions for writing, such as for ink, quills, sand, candles and paper.

Treat dates with with caution. Early dates usually, but not always, being later carved to enhance interest and value. Most stands should be considered as not being original. This would seriously affect the value of costly items such as those in woods other than oak.

See examples of this transition from writing boxes to Bureaux here.

The ‘bible box’ now moves onto a low and usually separate stand at which a person could be seated on a joint stool.

At the end of the 17th century the stand evolves and becomes integral with the box. The slope ceases to be hinged upwards but now becomes a ‘fall front’ which is much more convenient.

The stand was also developed and by Ca. 1700 may have acquired cabriole legs of varying quality. In the Queen Anne period, 1665-1714, the writing desk on stand reaches a high degree of sophistication. This is particularly the case when in any woods other than oak.

In the early 1700s the writing slope was placed above a chest of drawers. At first it was separate from the base but shortly it became integral with the chest of drawers.

At the end of the 17th century costly and highly sophisticated bureaux acquired bookcase or cabinet tops. Some had a wonderful architectural form. The best were veneered in walnut, yew, elm and mulberry.

In the 18th century the bureau bookcase reached new heights thanks to eminent makers such as Thomas Chippendale.
See an exquisite drawing for a bureau bookcase in the collection of the V&A museum.

Superb examples of antique bureaux exist also in lacquer and japan work. These are costly, rare and much sought after by collectors.