Sunday, October 13, 2013

Collections Spotlight: Mason Lap Desk

 By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director

Gunston Hall has acquired a folding desk that bears a brass plate, of the period, with the name “Mason.”  The piece is made of mahogany with barber pole inlay on the edges. The top features a central patera, simple stringing, and a quarter fan on each corner. These elements of design, with the red cedar and white pine secondary woods, strongly suggest a Baltimore origin, c. 1790-1810.

The writing desk survives in wonderful condition with its original surface. Traces of the original green dye used to accent the quarter fans and patera can still be seen.

As to the ownership we have little regarding provenance, but will continue to research the piece.

This type of desk represents the high level of style one would associate with the Mason family’s wealth, taste and stature. Aside from the brass name plate, our Room Use Study discussed the likelihood of George Mason owning a desk such as this;

One additional type of object merits discussion in this category--the writing box [traveling desk, folding desk] or lap desk. A smaller version of the top section of what furniture scholars refer to as a desk on frame, these small personal writing desks are known through period survivals. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one, now in the collection of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, upon which Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence. It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to distinguish them from their larger cousins in period inventories.

The issue of a writing box or lap desk is raised by George Mason's purchase in 1773 at the Belvoir sale of a desk valued at a mere 2£6. One can only theorize that based on low value that this is a personal and portable form. Mason's need for such a form can certainly be postulated based upon his travels to Williamsburg, Richmond, and Philadelphia.

The full text of this section can be found in the GunstonHall Room Use Study on our website.  We also want to thank Sumpter Priddy III for bringing this find to our attention.

Donated in honor of Mrs. Henry Raab for her service as First Regent of Gunston Hall.

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