The magnificent mahogany 'library table' desk is of bureau-plat form and enriched with Grecian-black ebony inlay that epitomises the taste for the Arts of France promoted by George IV, both as Prince of Wales and as Prince Regent. It was commissioned as the centrepiece of the Library at Powderham Castle, Devon by William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon (d.1835). He was the close friend of William Beckford and the two shared antiquarian, musical and theatrical interests, while also patronising the same architect, James Wyatt (d. 1813) who had been employed at Fonthill.
Its imperial 'antique' design and ornament, evoking lyric poetry, derives from the fashion popularised by C. Percier and P. Fontaine's, Receuil de decorations Interieuses, 1801 and promoted by the connoisseur Thomas Hope (d.1842), author of a guide-book to his London mansion/museum entitled Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1807. The rectangular frame has architectural 'eared' ends that are supported on paired and taper-hermed legs and its drawers are concealed behind hinged falls wreathed by the poetry-deity Apollo's triumphal palms. These are tied in ribbon-scrolled tablets and accompanied by lozenged compartments that recall Rome's Temple of Venus. Likewise triumphal laurels inlay the sunk tablets of the leg-pilasters, whose stumps terminate in thyrsus-like whorled reeds that emerge from palm-enriched Roman acanthus and recall Jupiter, the law-giver's vivifying fulcrum. These same elements feature in a stately throne pattern published in January 1807 and included in a Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1808, (pl. 58) issued by George Smith (d.1826), 'Upholder Extraordinary to His Royal Excellency the Prince of Wales'. Smith, who began his pattern-book in 1804, wrote of 'the great taste and elegance' of this design while also noting that 'French invention' lay behind his accompanying 'Library Fauteuil' pattern (ibid., pl. 47).
This richly-figured mahogany desk was probably made by the court cabinet-makers and upholsterers Messrs William Marsh and Thomas Tatham of Mount Street. They invoiced Lord Courtenay for furnishings totalling almost £3,000 in 1803 and their work, which commenced in 1800, was listed in the Estate ledger as:
Messrs William Marsh & Thomas Tatham of Mount St. Upholsterers.
1803 Augt. 17th. To his Lordship's Bond of this date to them payable 18th Augt. 1806 with interest in full...contra £2931.7.8'.
(Powderham Estate General Ledger 1763-1803 now in the Devon Record Office, Reference 1508M Devon/V12, p. 68).
At this same period the firm was assisting with the furnishings of the Carlton House mansion of George, Prince of Wales, later George IV, one of whose architects was Charles Heathcote Tatham (d. 1842), brother of the cabinet-maker Thomas Tatham. It is very possible that the Rome-trained architect, who was also the author of Etchings of Ancient Ornamental Architecture, 1800, played a role in this desk's design.