Gillows George III Mahogany Library Secretaire Cabinet

Circa 1785

Gillows George III Mahogany Library Secretaire Cabinet

Width: 49.5”, 126 cms / Depth: 27”, 68.5 cms / Height: 37.5”, 95 cms



No: 408W                                                                     GILLOWS OF LANCASTER

A GEORGE III MAHOGANY  LIBRARY SECRETAIRE CABINET attributed to Gillows, the hinged top with reeded edge and adjusting on two ratchets with a detachable and opposable reading rest, comprised of two adjustable ratcheted stands with brass feet/ratchets, above one long deep secretaire drawer simulated as long and short drawers and incorporating a baize covered writing slide with fall, and pushing forward to reveal a well flanked by six lidded boxes with inlaid ovals with the letters of the alphabet and also concealing secret compartments to the back, all above six short drawers flanking a recessed cupboard door enclosing vertical sliding divisions, dummy drawers to the back, plinth bases, castors. The lock to the secretaire drawer is stamped “Bramah Patent” with a crown over and the locks to the rest of the drawers are stamped  “Stansbury Patent”.

Circa 1785       


Width: 49.5”, 126 cms / Depth: 27”, 68.5 cms / Height: 37.5”, 95 cms

Attribution: We know this is by Gillows of Lancaster even though there is no stamp on it or signature. What does it have – the timbers are of exceptional quality with only the richest Mahogany used throughout. The secretaire opens to show letter inlaid oval panel hinged compartments which was a speciality of Gillows and it has the secret boxes with the original green material pulls hidden behind these compartments, and the hinged secretaire drawer.

It also has the baize lined slider covering these compartments with a second easel stand as well as sections for ink wells, quill pens etc. with the Gillows pattern thumb pulls on the front corners. The double rising top has brass feet to the easels.

These are all hallmarks of a family of desks made by Gillows in the last quarter of the 18th century and written up in detail by Susan Stuart in her wonderful 2 volume set on Gillows.

There are numerous similar examples illustrated in “Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840”. Stuart states that this model of desk was made for several patrons including William Egerton at Tatton Park, Sir William Stanley of Hooton and his kinsman, Mr Thomas Stanley, Thomas Gibbons of Wolverhampton and the Earl of Shrewsbury. It appears an example may also have been made for Shavington Hall in Shropshire. An example was ordered by Sir Walter Scott and is in Abbotsford.

In common with the Satinwood Library Table made in 1790 by John Savage of Gillows for the London Gillows shop, this example is a completely free-standing “library table to stand in the middle of a room” and all the above have the double depth secretaire drawer with the top sham drawers hinged to fold forward and, as each was a commissioned piece, there are variations according to the clients’ requirements. Some have an easel top, others have a double rising top and others have a fixed top.

Strong and important looking library tables of this pattern with sliding partitions, lettered compartments and secret (or private as Gillows called them) drawers were among the most expensive pieces made by them in the late 18th century.

I have spent some hours in my conservation department, part of which was moving pieces around to create space for all the freshly purchased items coming in, and it also gave me the opportunity to look at this fabulous Secretaire Cabinet by Gillows of Lancaster in hitherto unpublished ways during its conservation. Part of the genius of Gillows furniture lies in the technical know-how used to make cabinets where everything worked then and still functions perfectly today. Gillows used a number of suppliers to get the appropriate solutions and I am delighted to be able to show some of these here. The top of this has what we call a double rising top with a double easel to it. This is a feature found more frequently on Architect’s Tables during the 18th century.

In this instance, all the ratchets are solid brass which would have been an additional expense. Here you can see the brass foot which goes with the ratchet and being a double easel means it can be used for resting books on from both the front and the back of the cabinet. As the piece is free standing and the back is finished with an array of dummy drawers, that would have meant it was made to be a centre desk in a gentleman’s library during the 1780s. This is one of a group of very similar desks or cabinets made by Gillows during the last quarter of the 18th century and was proclaimed by the makers as being their finest work.

Each was commissioned for a specific client and therefore varies in the details according to the patron’s requirements. One common feature is the elaborate secretaire drawer with a drop-down front and the problem of its smooth running was solved in this instance by placing special steel rollers or wheels into the carcass on the rails beneath the secretaire drawer. So far, so good but what do you do to stop the top edges of the drawer catching on the inside of the carcass when shutting the heavy writing drawer? Simply embed brass barrel rollers into the top edges of the drawer sides! Then again, there is the sliding baize lined tray to the drawer which has also to retract smoothly to provide access beneath it to the lettered hinged compartments and the sequence of hidden secret drawers. Why not just put a couple of wheels onto the undercarriage of this tray to ensure it also glides well?

So once you have pulled the drawer out, slid the tray back, flapped the hinged lid open on the lettered compartments and removed the false back to access the hidden compartments, how do you get them out of the well they reside in? Simply by using the cut out on the inside of the box to gain purchase on it. What I only discovered upon removing the secretaire drawer completely from the body of the cabinet is that hidden behind the more usual “Private Drawers” as Gillows called them were further ones which could only be retrieved by liberating the usual drawers, sliding the “roof” or cover over this right forward and lifting the further “Private Drawers” over blocks and forward in order to extract them from their very secret hiding places. I hope the illustration shows how this can be achieved.


Boynton, L. (1995). Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800. Heydon, UK: The Bloomfield Press. Plate 24.

Stuart, S.E. (2008). Gillows of Lancaster and London, 1730-1840: Cabinetmakers and International Merchants: A Furniture and Business History, Volumes I & II. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collector’s Club. Vol. I, Plates 48, 66, 67, 291, 293, 295, 296, 298, and 434. Vol. II Plates GG28, 29 & 30, pp 377, GG31 pp 378,  GG42 pp 384, for this model of desk and variations.

Note: “Cook (E), William” is listed in Appendix B – Gillow Apprentices, Workmen and Tradesmen, Vol. II. In our personal copies from the Gillows Archive, pages 100-101, are accounting notes and an illustration of a piece that is strikingly similar to Harvey’s both in aesthetic and relative measurements, which was made by William Cook.

Antique Collecting Magazine, June 2024, 3-page fully illustrated article about this piece.



Delivery in the UK mainland is included in the marked price.

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