Antigone Clarke & Joseph O'Kelly

Antique Boxes at the Sign of the Hygra
2 Middleton Road London E8 4BL
PHONE: 00 44 (0)20 7254 7074
Notes for an interview with Nick Girdler on  BBC Radio Solent

Online History of Writing Boxes and Slopes  

Thumbnail index of writing boxes and slopes.

Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, and Society -- 1700--1880, ISBN: 0764316885  Antigone Clarke & Joseph O'Kelly, A Schiffer Book for collectors..

Writing Boxes and slopes

Writing boxes were originally referred to as desks, as they were the only form of furniture for holding writing requisites and for writing on. 

Before the 18th century they were mostly made of oak and decorated with carved designs. Their usage incorporated a religious element, as religion and education were perceived to be inextricably linked.

Dr Johnson tells us that the poet  Alexander Pope (1688-1744) "...punctually required that his writing box should be set upon his bed before he rose". 


Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope's box was probably a simple sloping box in which the current papers could be kept. The sloping writing surface was seen as very important for writing and keeping personal papers. All the images of scribes show them using such a surface. 

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A large japanned writing slope with a side drawer, designed to be used on a table. The top of the box is not hinged and is simply removed to the side when the inner writing surface is in use. The chinoiserie decoration consists of raised and painted figures in a landscape, and was executed in the manner practiced during the 18th century. As japanning was a style favored by ladies who at first did not use writing boxes to the same extent as men, it is unusual to find such a piece, especially in a large size.16.4" wide. Mid 18th century.

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In his Epistle To A Lady,  Alexander Pope writes:

“She, while her lover pants upon her breast,

Can mark the figures on an Indian chest…”

Stalker and Parker: Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing

1688 was the first time that a really comprehensive and well distributed publication on chinoiserie appeared.  This was  to influence chinoiserie for the next hundred and fifty years. The Stalker and Parker book epitomizes the confusion which prevailed in Europe regarding anywhere east of the Mediterranean Sea. The title reads: Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing.  

The designs are Patterns for Japan-work in imitation of the Indians! The advice given in the book was most probably deduced from Chinese imported lacquer and from Dutch craftsmen who had observed Chinese and Japanese lacquer workers. This work is in print today and still provides inspiration for artists. 

Another form of chinoiserie was penwork:

A penwork decorated writing slope in chinoiserie designs. Note that the painting and drawing is flat, relying for its effect on the brush/pen strokes. The artist endeavored to encapsulate the magic of Cathay in a scene of calm and tranquility. 


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Note the repartee between the central figures. Their facial expressions are interpreted with a few effective strokes. This is a departure from the 18th century oriental designs, in that it strives for more realism and consistency of perspective.

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A piece imbued with the spirit of its time. Original interior. 11" wide. Circa 1800.

The Writing Box witnessed war, business, and personal relationships. Unlike the writing desk or table, it was a personal not a household possession. 

From the last quarter of the 18th, to the end of the 19th century, the writing box featured prominently on military expeditions, travels, libraries, and in drawing rooms. Great literature as well as dispatches, contracts, letters, and postcards, were written on its sloping surface. 

The Brontë sisters were said to sit around their dining table writing on their respective writing boxes. Portraits were painted featuring writing boxes, as a symbol of the sitter's status, or literary achievement.

Robert Wyer, a London cabinet maker described his business as the "Original Military and Naval Trunk Manufacturers", on a label found on an early 19th century brass bound writing box. Given the stylistic similarity of early writing boxes to military furniture, it is very likely that the same cabinet makers were responsible for the making of both.

There are many  variations to the basic designs, as sometimes specially commissioned boxes took care of the client's preferences. In 1774 Chippendale billed The Right Honble Lord Irwin "To a mahogany Traveling Strong Box with private partitions, drawer etc. compleat £2.18s.0d."


Traveling Writing boxes were sometimes made to hold personal grooming tools like this one for shaving with water at a constant temperature:

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Detail: A mahogany writing box which opens into a writing surface which extends to the whole depth of the box. Unusually, the side drawer follows the slanting line of the box and provides storage space for writing and grooming implements. The metal shaving containers are original and very unusual. 

The round pot bears a patent number. 

The patent specifies and enables the temperature at which the water should be kept for a successful shave!!!

 A.D.1782.Nov.28. No 1345. PLAYFAIRS specification. Judging from the patent date and the similarity to Shearer's Fig 3 drawing, the box must have been made in the middle 1780s.

Traveling, mostly to Italy , was the second main reason which necessitated a writing box. Tourism was an altogether more complex business than it is now. Traveling was planned and undertaken as a very serious passage to adult life, or as an earnest professional voyage of discovery. 

People seldom traveled alone. There were whole entourages, moving slowly and clumsily, loaded with luggage covering every need. On the return journey, there was even more to carry: heavy mementoes of the tour, including fragments of marble, stone, bronze, shells, and whatever else the eager travelers decided to plunder, or buy. For those who could sketch, or paint, there were their drawings and watercolors to bring back. For others, prints by Piranesi and other exponents of the "Classical".


The brass corners and the strapping help to protect the box in difficult conditions. Many boxes from this period look as if they have seen real action and they have.
Georgian Mahogany Brass bound Writing Box circa 1790
A typical Georgian writing box in mahogany with brass corners and side handles. The drop handles point to an early date. 

The box of a standard large size of 20.8" in length by 9.7".  Circa 1790.

The sloping surface was available when the box was opened.

Georgian Mahogany Brass bound Writing Box circa 1790 


By the last decades of the 18th century writing boxes were necessary in many non-domestic situations. As they were necessary in activities involving traveling, their tops became flat in order to facilitate transportation. The sloping writing surface was available when the box was opened.

Another form was the triple opening box.


A triple opening rosewood veneered box, edged and strung in brass. The box combines strength, elegance, and impeccable workmanship in the Regency tradition.

The upright back gave more privacy and the little dated pockets were a form of personal organizer. 



The importance of the Word and the power of those who could use it.

In 1825, S.W. Fores of Piccadilly printed a caricature by H. Heath titled "La Coterie Debauché".

 Harriette Wilson writing her memoirs on her open writing box. harrietwilson.jpg (854735 bytes)


One of her lovers was the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo


Harriette Wilson writing her memoirs on her open writing box. harrietwilsonc2.jpg (91582 bytes)

The print shows the ex-lovers, including the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, gathering up in a suppliant manner in front of Harriette's writing box, which stands between herself and the men, marking the line of battle.

Furious at Harriette's audacity, the Duke replied: 

"Publish and be damned", a phrase which found its way into the heart of the language ever since.

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This print depicted Harriette Wilson writing her memoirs on her open writing box. Harriette was a courtesan of class, who numbered many members of the aristocracy amongst her lovers. 

When her best years were over, she decided to increase her income by writing about her amours. She gave her lovers the choice of paying her large sums of money, in order to keep her liaison with them out of her book.  

Harriette Wilson writing her memoirs on her open writing box. harrietwilsonc1.jpg (118108 bytes)

The recently convicted Margaret MacDonald's lap top with information of her important clients and  threats to publish is the modern day equivalent! 


Detail: Harriet also liked a sloping surface for delicate foot!
Harriette Wilson writing her memoirs on her open writing box; foot detail.


Important Documented Maker

Bayley, Blew & Chapman, who described themselves as "dressing case makers and Perfumers to His Majesty and HRH Duke of York," are recorded in the accounts of George IV as having supplied in 1828, a rosewood writing desk edged with brass and a buhl border, patent lock, and flaps covered with green velvet; interior glass mounted with silver. £15 12s. 

The price for this box is very high indeed, at least five times what could be expected for a normal quality box at the time and reflects the appreciation of the intricate brass and leather work.

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A very high quality early Regency triple opening writing box with brass edging and inlaid brass.

The embossed tan leather with gilt decoration  must be an inspiration to anyone who uses this box.

The box is labeled:

Bayley's of 17 Cockspur St. went on to become Bayley, Blew & Chapman.


Sometimes a box with a duel purpose was made. For example a box with sewing tools has a drawer fitted out with a writing slope.

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A box veneered in sadeli mosaic. Note the unbelievably fine work. The large panels are a feat of precision and skill. They are framed in an assortment of lines made up of different patterns, all harmoniously combined. The lower drawer is fitted as a writing box. An extraordinary piece of work. See Anglo Indian chapter for more details of the work. Circa 1800.

This work box with a writing slope which dates fron the 1 in the drawer was lot 469 of the auction of the contents of Manydown Park Basingstoke Hants in 1962: "An Indian inlaid ivory work-box with dome cover, 17in. x 11in. "

Manydown Park was the home of the Bigg Withers. 

It was at Manydown Park in 1802, that Jane Austen received, accepted, and then rejected, a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg Wither.

There are further notes on Manydown Park at.



Boxes with personalized decoration were sometimes made

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A writing box veneered in walnut, the top veneered with a parquetry pattern punctuated with Masonic symbols. 

Freemasonry enjoyed a period of popularity after the Napoleonic wars and it was considered a mark of distinction to join the fraternity of the people who were perceived to be distinguished. 15.25" wide. Because it is clearly a one off this box is difficult to date accurately. 

It still contains  Masonic documents.


The need for a personal space for keeping papers and letters and the desire to have a wonderful box to keep them continued throughout the 19th C.


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A box made by the firm of Betjemann's. Betjemann's were in the forefront of innovation and quality, using machinery and skill in an effort to achieve very smooth finishes and stable structures. This box epitomizes the new fashion for the neo-gothic. The brass shapes are punched with precision to achieve a certain depth. They are also gilded. 

The inserts are panels of pietra dura. Black slate is inlaid with marble in different colors in delicate designs of flowers. Inside, the slope is lined in gold embossed blue velvet which compliments the design. The interior facings are in coromandel. 

The maker's mark is engraved on the lock plate and the retailer's name is on a small strip of brass under the flap. 14" wide. Last quarter 19th century.


More information:

For more information on the history of writing boxes and slopes go to our website article: 
Online History of Writing Boxes and Slopes

There is also a thumbnail index to more pictures of particular writing boxes and slopes at: Thumbnail Index of Writing Boxes and Slopes

Thumbnail index of writing boxes and slopes.

And of course there is our book published by Schiffer Books USA

There is more information including the table of contents at:

Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, and Society -- 1700--1880, ISBN: 0764316885  Antigone Clarke & Joseph O'Kelly, A Schiffer Book for collectors.

© 2003 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly