Regeneration of a Gillows Library Cabinet
Some months ago I acquired a very tired looking Mahogany Library Cabinet which had been used during it’s lifetime and had seemingly landed on hard times. There was however something about this piece which any devotee of the Lovejoy books and TV programmes will know and understand. The term is “Divi” and that was Ian McShane’s role in the TV series. What is a Divi – someone who has a nose for special items and can sniff them out or divine them as would a water diviner with a forked twig. It is the excitement, the fluttering in the pit of the stomach, the palpitations, the hair standing on end on the back of the neck etc. I had all the aforementioned when I saw this as I just knew this was by Gillows of Lancaster even though there was no stamp on it or signature.
What did it have – well it had the same knobs as the library secretaire Table by Gillows which I bought some years ago from Mere Hall, the timbers, although dusty, faded and a little distressed are exceptional quality with the only the richest Mahogany used throughout, the secretaire opens to show letter inlaid hinged compartments which was a speciality of Gillows, it has the secret boxes with the original green material pulls hidden behind these compartments, and the hinged secretaire drawer.
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.
I saw the back of this piece and realised it must have spent most of its life against a wall as it was a rich, dark colour even though the panelling across the back means that this was made to be free standing and seen all round.
There are numerous similar examples illustrated in Susan Stuart’s two volume work, “Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840”. She 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. An example was also apparently made for Shavington Hall in Shropshire.
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 and because of the extraordinary quality of materials and manufacture are amongst the most rewarding to conserve. The removal of many decades of dirt, coal dust and tar, built up wax and assorted substances starts by being difficult to remove but once the crust has been cleaned it is relatively easier to get to what is a skin in effect and carry out the minor cabinet making repairs needed by years of use. The odd split here and sliver of veneer hoovered away can be expertly restored before building up the finish again to show the desk as it was originally intended to be seen.
This desk has an interesting variation on the theme of a sliding tray and rising top with a sliding, lift-out writing/reading slope fitted with a pen drawer and a baize lined writing slope. As the baize had become somewhat stained and moth-eaten we have replaced it with a leather surface which is much more comfortable for writing at. The whole stands on casters and the gilt brass drawer knobs have been cleaned.
This has been an immensely satisfying journey and I hope you will agree that the results have been eminently worthwhile. I can see how both Robert and Richard Gillow would have been so very proud of this desk and its related examples.
Lit: Susan Stuart, “Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840” Vol. I pages 278 to 285, plates 291 to 300 also plates 66 & 67.
Lindsay Boynton, “Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800” Plate 24 and page 162