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I received a lovely comment from a gentlewoman called Oriane who is studying over at La Rochelle University (or should I say, Université de La Rochelle?) asking about writing boxes:

[snip]

My last folly? I just bought a writing slope similar to yours and while i was looking for more informations when Google googled your ebony writing slope you bought in june!
Yours and mine are really really similar except that mine needs lots of restoration and will look like yours in a long time!
I was wondering how you know it’s a regency era work? I get a bit lost with english furnitures styles! As you may know we in France do have too a regency style but much different and not at all at the same era.

[snip]

I began answering her in a comment and then realised it would be better if I could include some images, so here goes with a blog post – do read on if you’re interested in my very amateur sleuthing and deduction (just call me Holmes)!  My disclaimer – of course, I know next to nothing about antiques and all I know about my writing box comes from online research … But here’s what I think I’ve worked out and if you know better, I’d love to be corrected!!

Here’s a reminder of the writing slope my mum gave me for my master’s graduation:

Regency ebony writing box.

To be honest the Regency tag came from the person I bought it from on ebay, though they do appear to be an antiques dealer.  Some research I’ve done on writing boxes does back this up – I’ll try to explain the little bit I do know.

The size and shape are more Regency than Victorian (after 1830) – the Regency boxes tend to be longer and thinner, while Victorian boxes tend to be more … boxy, by which I mean wider/taller, like this:

Quite a bit ‘fatter’ than my slope, even though both are ‘triple fold’, meaning that the lid folds back and then the slope folds out:

Most writing slopes/boxes open out just the once to show the writing surface, so I wanted to compare mine to other triple-fold versions.  The fifth item down on this page is another Victorian triple-fold writing slope – again, more ‘chubby’ in its dimensions than my slope.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof way of judging, as you do get Victorian examples of the ‘slimline’ shape, such as this ‘early Victorian’ example:

Though ‘early Victorian’ is close, time-wise, to Regency, so we’re not too far out there.

There is a very similar example (the only difference being the flat top) on another website dated c. 1840 (just after the Regency era, but close):

That seems to be one of the key differences between the slope I have (and that Oriane has) and many that you see – this slope is Anglo-Indian, that is, of Indian manufacture made for an English/British market.  Interestingly, this particular example is listed as being made from calamander wood rather than ebony – I’m going to have to check out some ebony and compare it.  Parts of my writing slope do have a slight brownish tinge, but I have read that ebony, especially antique ebony, can have this tone.  Also, calamander (AKA coromandel) seems to be more stripey, like this rather handsome example:

Probably the best source on the subject that I found was at hygra.com, a wealth of information on antique boxes, which discusses writing boxes and the Anglo-Indian style, where it mentions that ‘reeded’ finish as a feature of this style and that it emerged in the early part of the 19th century.  Hygra also points out that triple-opening writing boxes are relatively rare.  According to them, it was between 1800 and 1830 that the ‘side drawer’ disappeared in favour of internal secret drawers, as seen in my slope:

A triple-folder with secret drawers - yay, wewt and huzzah, I say!!

There is actually an example on Hygra of a slope from 1810 with similar drawers.

Well, that’s the information I’ve pieced together – one of the difficulties seems to be that often these boxes were commissioned and quite idiosyncratic, so no two would be identical, which makes it hard to make comparisons!

As I’ve said, I’m no expert and I’m having to rely on other people’s dates being accurate (ie, the ebay seller and that other 1840 date given above), but I’m satisfied that this is an Anglo-Indian box is probably late Regency or very early Victorian, probably somewhere between 1820 and 1840.  I’d also note with my box that it’s not very ‘fine’ like the examples on Hygra of Anglo-Indian boxes, it’s actually slightly crude when you look more closely in some places (hidden spots, really!) and there’s a little damage on the lid where the wood seems to have split, but I think that’s down to the pitched style of the lid, which appears to be very unusual.

Anyway, I hope that’s of use to you, Oriane, and perhaps of some interest to anyone else!

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Newsflash


All I will say is: weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!

Regency ebony writing box.

Or should I say, the Regency ebony writing box that will soon be in the post to me?

A triple-folder with secret drawers - yay, wewt and huzzah, I say!!

WEEEEEE!

Edit: I will be doing a more detailed post with more pictures when it arrives!

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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!).

Regency writing box recently sold on ebay.

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.

Interior of the same box.

And those writing flaps lift up, leaving space for writing (or painting/drawing) materials, important papers and the like:

What lies beneath.

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:

Ssssh - don't tell!

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…

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