The history of the fall-front secretaire

Theodora Burrell from Lyon & Turnbull traces the history of this elegant yet practical design

Fall-front desk on view at the National Trust’s Wordsworth House in Cumbria.

The fall-front secretaire or desk has as many names as it does forms. Often called a ‘secretary’ in America, it can also simply be a ‘writing cabinet’, and the French term ‘secrétaire à abattant’, translating as a ‘drop-leaf desk’, is regularly used by antiques dealers and auction rooms. All describe an upright cabinet with drawers or doors in the base, below a flap-down writing platform disguising pigeon holes and small drawers for hiding treasures. 

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18th-century William & Mary walnut and marquetry escritoire
18th-century William & Mary walnut and marquetry escritoire, sold for £1,700, Lyon & Turnbull.

The fall-front secretaire has its origins in the desk, or bureau, and is derived from the Renaissance writing cabinet. The fall-front style was originally realised as a cabinet placed on an open stand or table. Those which incorporated a chest or drawers to the base became fashionable during the 18th century, being in production from around 1675 in England.

During the 19th century, the secretaire came to the forefront of middle-class interiors, especially within European countries where the Biedermeier style developed. The secretaire epitomised the period, being economical in space, perfectly suited to intellectual activities and with numerous drawers for collectors’ items, documents or diaries. The decoration was pared back, to focus on the natural beauty of the wood grain. 

19th-century Dutch walnut and marquetry fall-front secretaire
19th-century Dutch walnut and marquetry fall-front secretaire sold for £550 at Lyon & Turnbull

In neighbouring countries, other variations followed the styles and tastes of their given locations and periods. Examples in the Louis XV style were shapely cabinets, often topped by marble, incorporating fashionable woods, like amaranth and kingwood, and sometimes with painted Vernis Martin panels. Dutch secretaires tended to employ ornate floral marquetry or oval inlaid reserves, while French Empire or Directoire examples favoured more masculine shapes, plain mahogany veneers and simple gilt bronze mounts. In Britain, 18th-century secretaires, or escritoires, followed the trends of these given periods too, with delicate inlaid borders or moulded detail being favoured over lavish decoration.  

Variations on the style were also adopted by 20th-century designers, and examples span the turn of the century to the 1960s and 70s. Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed a pale-painted fall-front desk on a blocked stand, with pigeon holes to the interior for Hous’hill in Glasgow. 

A late 19th-century French kingwood marquetry and Vernis Martin secretaire
A late 19th-century French kingwood marquetry and Vernis Martin secretaire, sold for £460, Lyon & Turnbull.

The plethora of styles is of great advantage to the buyer, and secretaires can be purchased from antiques dealers and auction houses around the world. With prices for antique furniture being modest, 19th-century secretaires can be bought for as little as a few hundred pounds. Size, condition, style, maker and age all play a part in desirability and cost, but local experts can source the right piece for you.

The continued popularity of the fall-front desk is due in part to its clever use of space and its versatility. Although letter writing is no longer fashionable, contemporary examples prove the secretaire still has a place in current design. 

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Nowadays, both old and new models can be used in almost any room. With good storage in the base, a fold-away surface that is perfect for a laptop, and miniature drawers in which to house jewellery and accessories, the secretaire still lends itself to 21st-century living. 

Price guide

Georgian and Regency fall-front secretaires sell for around 
£1,000-£2,000 at auction. In general, 18th-century examples make more than 19th-century ones. Traditional, continental examples from the 1800s can be purchased for as little as £300 upwards at auction. 

 

For pieces by the top makers, such as Thomas Chippendale, the sky’s the limit, with examples selling for six-figure sums and above. For something more affordable, seek out French designer René Prou’s art deco secretaires, which offer a stylish alternative to classic antique designs, and can be purchased at auction from around £800 upwards. Mid-century fall-front desks can be bought for £500-£900 plus.

 

For a contemporary take on the secretaire, featuring traditional woods and brasses, American designer Thomas O’Brien’s ‘Hallings Secretary’ is available at Century Furniture for ,198.