I was going to contain my excitement and not say anything on this blog about this particular thing until I had it in my possession. But I’m clearly not very good at that, because here I am about to gush about the wond’rousness of the very apt MA graduation gift from my Lovely Mum …
An antique writing box. AKA, a writing slope or lap desk (though, I think that technically they are all slightly different things, the three terms do tend to be used interchangably, so I will do the same). Isn’t that a brilliant present idea for a Creative Writing MA graduand? (I know, my Mum’s brilliant!)
I can remember seeing these on TV as a child (probably on the Antiques Roadshow) and thinking they were the coolest thing since, well, ever, but not knowing much about them, I’ve been doing a little research. So here’s a little guided tour around a gorgeous Regency rosewood writing box that recently sold on Ebay (for far more than I could aford, alas!).
A writing box from the outside apears much like any other rectangular box and may be plain or richly decorated. It’s only once you open it that you realise that this is more than ‘just another box’ – a handsome slope covered in baise, velvet or leather (usually with gilt and/or blind embossed decoration, a pen holder (perhaps stained with the ink of some late-night letter-writing), an ink well (or perhaps a couple in different colours for the adventurous or the accountant amongst you) and maybe even a pair of candle sconces.
And those writing flaps lift up, leaving space for writing (or painting/drawing) materials, important papers and the like:
While these boxes came with locks (specially made to lie flush when unlocked, so they don’t dig into one’s arms or catch on sleeves while writing), one can never be sure who might manage to poke around in one’s writing box (ooh-er!), so where can a young woman of society keep her lover’s letters away from prying eyes? (Or indeed, keep her cash from being misplaced, as almost happened to Jane Austen when her writing box was mis-placed on a chaise heading to Gravesend!) Fear not, for some clever little writing boxes (including this one) have a cunning solution – secret drawers:
The apparent back panel is in fact removed with a little press in the right place to reveal these delightful little drawers. And if all that isn’t enough storage space for you, Regency boxes and some Victorian ones often had a larger side drawer that opened from the outside:
Document storage, creation and secrecy? In essence, the lap desk was the historical gentleperson’s laptop. (Instead of secret drawers we have encryption and passwords – I know which I feel more secure with!)
What I find even more exciting is the thought that all those 18th and 19th century writers we love (and sometimes hate) penned their words in such boxes – Byron, Dickens, Austen. This page has some interesting information about Jane Austen’s writing box (upon which Pride & Prejudice was written!) and the escapade I outlined earlier when it was almost lost (but thankfully recovered!). Here is a box apparently similar to Austen’s and Jane Austen’s World has an image of the actual desk, which was donated to the British Library by one of her non-direct descendants.
The best site I found for information on writing boxes is Antigone’s guide to Antique Writing Boxes and Lap Desks. It contains an absolute wealth of knowledge and has given me some sense of the development of the box and features to look out for. Do go there for a more in depth look at writing slopes and boxes.
Approaching this as a buyer, the first thing I realised rather swiftly – buying from an antiques dealer is going to be considerably more expensive than buying from ebay. Out-of-our-price-range more expensive. The other option could be a local auctioneer – Arthur Johnson & Sons – who hold auctions every Saturday and list their items online from 6pm the Thursday before.
So, this gentlewoman is on the hunt for the Perfect Writing Box…