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Tambour Desk

Place Made:
Norfolk Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –yellow pine –tulip poplar
HOA: 49 5/8; WOA: 38 1/4; DOA: 19 3/8
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Secretary with scalloped apron and French feet surmounted by four graduated drawers with stringing and light wood lip on edges; upper section has two tambour doors; molded cornice; frieze is decorated with line and bellflower inlay; prospect door has light stringing; three ogee arched pigeon holes on either side with three rows of drawers above, the first containing two drawers; stringing around pigeon holes too.

NEW ENGLAND CONNECTION: The design of the case is closely related to pieces from Salem, Massachusetts. The strong connection between Salem and Norfolk is not surprising since large quantities of venture furniture were sent South from Salem. An almost identical desk attributed to Langley Boardman of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was included in a 1992 exhibition by Brock Jobe of SPNEA. The relationship between the two pieces has not been determined. Did a single cabinetmaker working first in Portsmouth, then in Norfolk, make both pieces? Did an apprentice in the Portsmouth shop move south? Or was a similar Portsmouth work shipped to Norfolk and copied?

The mahogany veneer on yellow pine confirms its Southern origin. Similar bellflower inlay and light wood beading are also found on a desk and bookcase with a longstanding Norfolk history.

The desk descended in the Taylor family of Norfolk and was probably owned by Robert Barraud Taylor (1774-1834) and his wife, Nancy Ritson (1775-1862). Taylor was a wealthy merchant, three-term mayor, and distinguished jurist. He was born in Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia, to Robert Taylor and Sarah Barraud. In 1807, he was a member of the grand jury that indicted Aaron Burr for treason, and during the War of 1812, commanded the militia that defeated a superior force of 4,000 British troops attacking Norfolk. He was later appointed to the first Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. Taylor completed his career by serving as Judge of the General Court and Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery for the First Circuit. He died in Norfolk in 1834 at the age of 60.

Because of its diminutive size, this form is often called a lady’s desk or a lady’s secretary, so it’s original owner might have been Mrs. Taylor. The daughter of Norfolk merchant Thomas Ritson (d. 1807) and his wife, Martha Willoughby, Nancy Ritson married Robert Barraud Taylor on 28 July 1796. Nancy Taylor, age 85, was listed in the 1860 census living in the home of her son, William E. Taylor (1809-1870). The desk then descended his great-granddaughter, Lelia Baker (Taylor) Dunn (1900-1965).

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund