Dictionary of English Pieces - Bureaus. Butler's Trays


A bureau is a form of writing desk, and has a number of names: including escritoire, scriptor and secretaire. The earliest type, dating from about 1675, was a cabinet on an open stand, with a hinged front that let down to make a writing surface. Shortly after that date came a similar piece, but with the top sloping instead of upright. Later again, drawers were used in place of the stand, and the pattern that is still made came into being. Many sloping-top bureaus were made in the form known as a bureau-bookcase; that is, with a bookcase above the bureau.

Another variety is in the form of a straight-fronted chest, the front of the upper dummy drawer (or upper two drawers) hinged and falling to reveal a writing-space with pigeon-holes and smaller drawers. This type is called generally a secretaire.

Bureaus and secretaires, with or without upper bookcases, were made in one form or another from about 1700 onwards, and not only in walnut and mahogany but also lacquered. It is important to make sure that a bureau- or secretaire- bookcase remains as it was made, and has not been 'married' subsequently. Often, a straightforward bureau has had a bookcase, more or less fitting and matching, placed on it and the value falsely increased.

Butler's Trays

A large oblong tray on a folding X-shaped stand, usually of mahogany, was used by the butler as an extra and movable sideboard. Late eighteenth-century examples are of various types: plain, brass-bound at the corners, and with all four sides of the tray hinged to fall flat. Another type has the rimless top hinged across the centre and in one with the base, and the whole article folds up. These are sometimes known as 'coaching tables'.

Collectable Antiques: