THE EMPEROR'S DESK?
This 'antique' desk pattern was commissioned in 1815 by George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV, for the exiled and defeated Emperor Napoleon's use at New Longwood House, St Helena. Designed in the French/Grecian style invented by the Liverpool sculptor/cabinet-maker George Bullock (d.1818), the Emperor's desk/library-table was invoiced on 1 January 1816 as a 'Mahogany Library Table inlaid with Ebony with Cupboards at each end for Portfolio's and Drawers. £68.5s.' (Levy ibid., Appendix 3, p.110). Praised for its tasteful simplicity in Rudolph Ackermann's Repository of Arts, the St Helena furniture was meticulously described in the Times article 'House and Furniture for Bonaparte' of 25 October 1815. This article stated that 'The library table is particularly elegant and mechanical ingenuity has been laboriously applied to furnish it with desks and drawers... suited to every convenience of study and accomodation'. As this description is inconclusive, it is certainly possible that it could refer to another library table from New Longwood.
This desk is one of the only two of this model in mahogany recorded. Unless another is yet to come to light, one of these two must be that supplied to Napoleon himself. However, without further documenrary or circumstantial evidence, it is impossible to determine whether the Strathmore/Glanville desk offered here, or that sold anonymously at Osmond Tricks, Bristol, 21 February 1989, lot 541 (and subsequently anonymously, in these Rooms, 7 July 1994, lot 155) is the Emperors'.
In 1815 Bullock was famed as being amongst London's 'most tasteful and ingenious artists', (p.5). His furnishings at New Longwood, designed to harmonise with the architecture 'in the pure simplicity of the Grecian style' executed by William Atkinson (d.1839), 'architect for the Ordnance Department', were intended to provide an appropriate residence for the 'Ex-Emperor', whom some likened to Thermistocles, the exiled Athenian statesman and Commander.
THE SUBSEQUENT HISTORY OF NAPOLEON'S DESK
As Martin Levy's research has revealed, Napoleon's desk was the subject of a long drawn-out and acrimonious saga, which was finally resolved in 1823 in favour of Sir Hudson Lowe. Subsequently acquired - together with at least ten further pieces of furniture from New Longwood - by John Copling (d.1876) of The Grove, Hackney, the Library desk was sold following his death by Messrs. Puttick and Simpsons, 3 July 1967 as:
'A 6 ft. LIBRARY TABLE of mahogany and yew banded with ebony, fitted with numerous drawers and closets. On this table were written the Historical Memoirs dictated by the Emperor to the Generals of his Suite, and it was constantly used by Napoleon himself in his cabinet'. It was purchased by Captain Dalrymple (Levy ibid., p.74).
Whilst the mention of yew is somewhat confusing, the richly figured 'burr' panel of the doors could well have been confused with yew by an auctioneer!
The desks 'altar' pedestals have stepped plinths and cornices after the 'antique' fashion that the connoisseur Thomas Hope (d.1842) introduced around 1800, when adapting his London mansion to serve as a 'columbarium' for his museum of Greek vases. Also in 1806, this form of altar-pedestal was adopted by George Smith (d.1826), the Princes 'Upholder Extraordinary' in an engraved pattern for a low book-cabinet, dressed with Greek black vases and an Apollo statue (published in Smith's, Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1808, pl. 105).
The desk is embellished in the French manner, with tables sunk in its commode pedestals and framed by paired pilasters; while its Grecian-black ribbon inlay is accompanied by arched and flowered brackets terminating in Egyptian lily pods. A more ornamental version of Bullock's desk-pattern features in tracings made by William Wilkinson (H. Blairman & Sons, Furniture and Works of Art, 1994, no. 9).
THE STRATHMORE PROVENANCE
This desk displays a typed label for 'Cecilia, Countess of Strathmore', a title which only applied between 1904-1922. As this appears to denote that it was her own property, it might suggest that it was inherited directly from her own family, her father being a grandson of the 4th Duke of Portland and Cecilia herself being a great-grandaughter of Richard, 1st Marquess Wellesley, brother of Napoleon's vanquisher the 1st Duke of Wellington.
Equally plausible, however, is that it could have been given or inherited from her husband's family. Cecilia married Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne in 1881, and they made Glamis Castle in Angus their home, where their youngest daughter, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was brought up. It is entirely possible that this desk was acquired by Claude, 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne as part of the series of improvements he embarked upon at Glamis after succeeding his brother to the title in 1865. These included the introduction of running water in 1865, central heating in 1866, and improvements to the Chapel, Billiard Room, servants wings and formal gardens right the way through from the 1860's-90's.
As no large-scale improvements are recorded at Glamis in the early 19th Century, the probability of the desk being indigenous to the house is remote. It is interesting to note, however, that Bullock's work found particular favour amongst Scottish patrons, including Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, the Duke of Buccleuch at Blair Castle, Mrs. Ferguson of Raith and the Earl of Wemyss at Gosford. Coincidentally, Cecilia, Countess of Strathmore's step-father was Harry Scott of Ancrum (d.1889), a kinsman and near neighbour of Sir Walter Scott of Abbotsford, Bullock's leading Scottish patron, who died without issue. Could the library desk conceivably have been inherited from the Scott side of the family?
Ironically, the Scottish connection with Bullock appears to have continued even with Napoleon's desk, as the as yet untraced 'Captain Dalrymple' who was the succesful purchasor in the 1867 sale was presumably also of Scottish descent.