Originally an antique desk was a box or board with a hinged sloping surface and a bureau was a flat-topped table with drawers underneath; as Adam Bowett has pointed out we have reversed the original meanings of 'desk' and 'bureau' over time.
The earliest form of the antique desk was a bureau which developed in France from the end of the seventeenth century as an alternative to the conventional triad of candlesticks, looking glass and pier table. At first the sloping surface sat on a stand or pillar legs but soon there was a need for a purpose-made writing desk. By the 1690s the writing slope merged with a chest of drawers; antique bureaux are essentially a fusion of two different types of furniture, a writing desk and a chest of drawers. They were very fashionable during the Queen Anne period.
A Queen Anne Walnut Bureau, 1705
This is a charming early example of an antique Queen Anne bureau which is made of two distinct parts and retains its orginal penny ring handles. The quarter veneered fall front opens to reveal a fully fitted interior with a writing well and two frieze drawers act as lopers when they pull out, above two short and two long graduated doors raised on later bun feet.
A Georgian Mahogany Bureau, 1760
Here we have a later example of the antique bureau with a wonderfully figured fall revealing a fully fitted interior, raised on original bracket feet.
By the middle of the eighteenth century knee-hole writing tables and flat-top pedestal desks became fashionable. Illustrated below is a handsome example of a Regency antique flat-top pedestal desk or writing table with a leathered top crossbanded in mahogany above four frieze drawers and raised on turned and reeded legs.
By the beginning of the 1800s two other desks became popular; the antique partners' desk and the antique Davenport.
Antique partners' desks are very useful and functional, their name derives from the fact that they were increasingly used in offices such as law firms. Two people can work comfortably at the desk at the same time, as they have cupboards on one side and drawers on the other giving separate storage space for each user. Below is a very large William IV partners' desk, the writing surface is a leathered top crossbanded in mahogany, raised on a plinth base; with mahogany drawer linings and the original maker's mark this is a particularly fine example of a partners' desk. It also has a very generous kneehole; when purchasing an antique desk it is essential to take a seat at the desk to see how comfortable it is.
Finally, the Davenport became fashionable during the Sheraton period, it is thought that a Captain Davenport commissioned the first example. Antique davenports have a sloping writing section that sits above a case of drawers. Normally on casters they were easily moved which was important, especially during the Regency era. This Sheraton mahogany Davenport shown below has a leathered writing slope which pulls out to form a kneehole, the inside is veneered in bird's eye maple with ink and pen compartments that also pull out.
The antique desk or bureau has developed greatly over time, and as we have seen can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. When searching for an antique bureau it is important to check the colour and patina of the wood and to see if they have their original handles and feet.