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Desk and bookcase

Desk and bookcase

  • Place of origin:

    Lima (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1760-1810 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    The hardwoods used in the construction and marquetry of this piece have been identified by eye only. They appear to be hardwoods of the kind found in Central and South America. The mother-of-pearl was identified by colleagues from the Natural History Museum (again, without microscopic examination) to be likely to be from freshwater mussels found in Chinese rivers.

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Miss Harriet F.L. Coward

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY7, shelf EXP []

The form of this cabinet is based on an early 18th-century English design for what was then called a 'desk and bookcase' and is now more often called a 'bureau'. This type of furniture spread across Europe and from various European states to their colonial territories. The very practical form had a long life and was popular, for instance, in the newly independent United States of America at the end of the 18th century. The materials used and the ornament chosen, differed according to the country. In India, such a piece might be veneered in ivory inlaid into local woods. This piece is built with woods found in Central and South America, but veneered with small pieces of mother-of-pearl that were possibly imported from the rivers of China. It was made in Lima, the capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, between about 1760 and 1810. Several other cabinets, of similar form and decoration are known in other collections and it is likely that they all originated from the same workshop although we have, as yet, no clue as to the name of the master craftsman who made them.

Physical description

Desk and bookcase in two tiers, the lower raised on shaped bracket feet supporting a flaring base, under three long drawers below a sloping front, the upper with two doors enclosing shelves, below a shaped and pierced cresting. The desk and bookcase is veneered all over the outside with mother-of-pearl in panels filled with repeating patterns of curved interlocking shapes, most the small plaques of mother-of-pearl outlined and separated by thin fillets of tropical hardwood. The drawers of the lower tier are set with small, turned knobs, silvered. These appear to be an attempt to re-create the original knobs, to replace brass bail handles with pierced rococo backplates that were added to the drawers at some time. The interior of the writing compartment is set with a bank of six drawers above a shallow recess lined with blue paper, the sides painted blue, the drawer fronts and inside of the slope veneered in tropical hardwoods in a pattern of lozenges.

The marquetry of mother-of-pearl is divided into panels outlined with double bands of mother-of-pearl pieces separated by a serpentine fillet of hardwood. On the doors of the upper tier the same running motif defines a central panel on each, that in turn is divided vertically into two the same serpentine band. Between these bands the ground is filled with a repeating pattern of elongated quatrefoils composed of interlocking sections of circles, of different sizes, around two conjoined figure-of-eight pieces, with one half of the 8 smaller than the other. This framing and ground pattern is also used on the sides and the front of the lower tier, with different proportion, to articulate the individual panels and drawer fronts. More elaborate elements are worked into the marquetry in places: formalized tulips in shield-shaped reserves at the corner of each cupboard door; a larger 8-shaped motif centering the panels on the lower sides; additional leaf motifs filling the trapezoidal centre of the upper sides of the lower tier, which are treated as separate panels; and a large, shaped cartouche centrally on the slope, flanked by quatrefoil motifs with plant forms forming a square at each side.

The marquetry inside the writing compartment shows, on each drawer, a framing of dark tropical hardwood with an inner stringing of a light hardwood, with a lozenge banding of the same dark and light woods, against a ground of a mid-toned reddish wood. None of these woods have been subjected to microscopic examination. The small drawers are set with turned knobs of the dark wood, each with a central plaque of mother-of-pearl. Similar woods to those used on the small drawers have been used in the large lozenge motif on the inside of the doors and the flap. None of the woods has been analysed microscopically. The woods commonly used on this family of cabinet include Nicaraguan or Cusco cedar, mahogany, cocobolo, with willow or alder for construction. The doors of the upper section are lined with The fall-front shows a larger design of interlocking lozenges in the same woods.

The desk and bookcase is constructed in boards 2 cm thick, probably of cedar. There is very apparent sapwood in this timber, particularly visible in the small drawers, with clear rays on the area between the heartwood and sapwood.

The lower tier is made in one piece, including the writing compartment. The case is constructed with mitred dovetails, the mitreing visible at the back corners. The backboard of four horizontal boards (of the same wood as the case) is set within a rebate cut in the top, sides and base of the case and is held in place with wooden nails (trenails), with some screws added more recently. The case sits on a frame composed of blocks of carcase wood (one on each side and three along the front), which are glued to its underside. The flaring base mouldings are glued to this, rising just above the joint with the carcase. The feet, which are composed of multiple blocks of hardwood are glued to a single vertical at each corner, rectangular in section and longer on the front and back edges, with shorter boards forming the sides of the feet, the angle being filled with blocks of wood.

The flap is probably a single board, now showing curvature across its width. It is cut at an angle on the front and back edges to fit the carcase and is fitted with two brass butt hinges (replacements, showing infill to adjacent veneers) and with a replacement brass lock (also showing infill on the veneer behind). The interior of the writing compartment is composed of two horizontal and two vertical, interlocking boards, inserted from the back and set in shallow channels cut in the sides and top of the case. The recess below the drawers is set at either side with a square-sectioned compartment running the full depth of the case, to contain the lopers that flank the top long drawer. Each of these is made of two boards, glued and pinned together and partially held in place by the blue paper that lines the bottom of the recess, the sides of which are painted blue to match in the area to the front of the drawers.

All the drawers, large and small, are constructed in hardwood, dovetailed, with mitred dovetails at the front, the bases (with grain running laterally) are set in rebates on the fronts and sides, running under the bases where they are nailed up with trenails. The drawers are slightly trapezoidal in plan. In each case they are wider at the front than the back (7 mm wider on each small drawer). The drawer cavities are perfectly rectangular. The difference is made up with tapering slips of another hardwood (possibly mahogany) glued to either side of the drawers, in the manner of vertical runners. Similar tapering slips are glued on the top of each drawer side. The only explanation that seems possible for this (given that it was clearly done at the time of manufacture and that the drawers appear to fit tightly at the front) is to avoid problems with the movement of the carcase wood because of changes in humidity, offering an area of wood that could be planed off if the drawers began to stick.

The upper tier is of similar construction to the base, with two full-width shelves inserted from the back of the case. The backboard, of three horizontal boards of hardwood, is of similar construction to that on the lower tier and is fitted in the same way, with trenails as fixings. At the lower edge of the back on each side are small iron screw eyes, presumably for receiving hooks fixed to the wall. The doors are each hung with two brass butt hinges. These have been replaced, with long sections of repair to the veneers behind them suggesting that they replaced strap hinges. The doors appear to be each made of three vertical boards, cleated top and bottom, with the top cleats deeper (13 cm) than the bottom (5cm). The lock on the leading edge of the right-hand door has been replaced, leaving marks in the veneer. On the left door the brass striker plate is a replacement with similar evidence in the veneers. The brass bolt at the base of the leading edge of the left-hand door is also a replacement. The cupboard doors are veneered in a similar pattern to that on the flap, and the inside of the cupboard with smaller lozenges similar in scale to those on the small drawers of the writing compartment. Both the upper and lower surfaces of the shelves are veneered in this way. The front edges of the shelves are veneered with the palest wood, fixed with small pins of wood. At the sides the backboard has shrunk and reveals that the veneers are approximately 3 mm thick.

The cresting is in three sections, each cut from a single softwood board. They are attached with softwood glue blocks to the top of the upper tier, these also screwed in place. The front cresting has an additional central support running almost the full height behind the cresting.

Place of Origin

Lima (made)


ca. 1760-1810 (made)



Materials and Techniques

The hardwoods used in the construction and marquetry of this piece have been identified by eye only. They appear to be hardwoods of the kind found in Central and South America. The mother-of-pearl was identified by colleagues from the Natural History Museum (again, without microscopic examination) to be likely to be from freshwater mussels found in Chinese rivers.

Marks and inscriptions

In chalk on the top of the base section

in black paint on the back of the base section

[Chisel marks, largely Roman numerals]
Found on small drawers within writing compartment and on the frame for these.6


Height: 237.7 cm, Width: 109.2 cm, Depth: 50 cm

Object history note

The previous owner of the cabinet and her sister, told the Museum staff that a member of their family had been in South America towards the end of the 18th century (area not specified) (Registered File 43/587, in Nominal File: Coward, Miss Harriet Flora Lucy decd., MA/1/C2960)). It had been suggested that the cabinet was made in Mexico but it is now known to have been made in Lima, Peru. A number of pieces with very similar marquetry of mother-of-pearl survives. Although the workshop has not been identified to a particular master, the detail of marquetry on the group thought to have come from it, is remarkably consistent.

For a very similar piece see María Campos Carlés de Peña. A Surviving Legacy in Spanish America. Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Furniture from the Viceroyalty of Peru. Madrid: Ediciones el Viso, 2013, p. 265. This piece and other pieces with similar decoration are discussed on pp. 262-274. They are there dated to c. 1740 but in correspondence, March 2016, Jorge F. Rivas of the Denver Art Museum, suggested that a more likely date would be between 1760 and 1810. That dating seems more reasonable for the V&A piece, which appears originally to have had knobs on the drawers (now replaced, those replacing stamped metal handles which must have been added at some time). The use of knobs would seem to support a later-eighteenth century date.

Another very similar cabinet is in the collections of the Newport Restoration Foundation, Newport, Rhode Island and was shown at the 2015-16 exhibition 'Made in the Americas. The New World Discovers Asia' at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See Dennis Carr, Made in the Americas. The New World Discovers Asia. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 2015, pp. 31-2 and fig. 16. That cabinet is dated simply to '18th century'.

Lima was founded in 1535, very shortly after the Spaniards took control in that area of South America and shortly before the Viceroyalty of Peru was declared by Charles V of Spain in 1542. The city became, and remained, the most Spanish city in South America, and its architecture and arts reflected its cosmopolitan aspirations, funded by the successful development of mining, especially for silver (from the 1570s onwards). The Inca Empire had not had a tradition of joinery or cabinet-making but had many fine stone carvers and the indigenous skills in metalwork were developed not only in silversmithing but also in tool making. Immigrant craftsmen brought woodworking, carving, turning and gilding skills to the Viceroyalty. They came from Spain but also from other areas such as North Africa, and brought with them the influence of muslim design, including a taste for geometric designs (as seen on this cabinet) and the use of mother-of-pearl and turtle shell. In Lima different guilds for the different specialisms developed. By the early 17th century German and Italian craftsmen had also settled there.

Influence from Asia was also important, and trade between Manila in the Philippines and South America rapidly developed (as one step in the trade with Europe, the Dutch having monopolised the route from Asia via the Cape of Good Hope). Although the main route to Europe was through Mexico, this meant that Lima had access to Japanese namban lacquer work (work made specifically for export) and much of the local work using turtle shell and mother-of-pearl also reflected the aesthetic of lacquer. The technique may have been developed by Japanese craftsmen known to have been settled from the late-17th century. The use of mother-of-pearl on its own, covering the entire surface of objects, also reflects the boxes and small items produced in Gujarat, India, in the late-16th and early-17th centuries that were so highly prized for the collectors’ cabinets of European rulers and nobles. Lima became highly populous, with a large elite community, both secular and among the religious communities that made their headquarters for missionary work in the city. From 1718-1824 the Viceroyalty of Peru was much reduced in size. Originally it had covered most of the Spanish settlements in South America but after 1718 its area was closer to that of modern Peru and the importance of Lima was less than it had been in the seventeenth century, although it remained important within the smaller territory and benefited from the skills that had developed in the seventeenth century.

This cabinet is part of a strongly defined group of pieces that is likely to have come from a single workshop or a small group of workshops in LIma specialising in this technique. They show similar forms, including the sharp base ‘skirt’ of the writing cabinets, and the flat, pierced cresting of elaborate curves, plus the rather perfunctory bracket feet. The decoration was applied to carcases built using Nicaraguan or Cusco cedar, in mahogany or cocobolo, with some use of willow and alder back boards and bases. The woods on the V&A cabinet have not been identified by microscopic analysis but by eye they conform to this tradition. A casket in the Museo de America (inv. 2018/30/01) displays the same surface appearance but uses a dark resin between the plates of mother-of-pearl rather than the fillets of wood used on W.3-1943. The basic technique, and another that combined mother-of-pearl with turtle shell, was called enconchado in inventories of the time. Some of the finer pieces have engraved silver mounts and hinges. The V&A cabinet appears always to have been fitted with knobs, although the ones currently on the piece are replacements.

The form of the desk and bookcase, bureau or writing cabinet, developed in England at the very beginning of the 18th century. The form was copied in many areas of the world at different points in the 18th and early 19th centuries (Russia, Germany, India, North America and South Africa amongst others), with varieties of decoration reflecting local preferences. Such writing cabinets are often seen in the background of portraits of men, and became a useful shorthand to suggest the learning and business interests of the person portrayed.

Historical context note

Comparable objects
See Gabriela Germana Roquez, "El mueble en el Peru en el siglo XVIII: estillos, gustos y costumbres de la elite colonial", in Anales del Museo de America 16 (2008), pp. 189-206, [fig.14]
accessed 26/9/2017

Descriptive line

Desk and bookcase, now known as a bureau bookcase, the outside entirely veneered in small plaques of mother-of pearl, the inside with wood marquetry in geometric patterns. The lower section is fitted with three long drawers; the central section, behind a sloping fall-front, is set with six small drawers behind the writing surface; the upper sections is enclosed with two doors and fitted with two shelves. Lima, Peru, 1760-1810.

Labels and date

Bureau bookcase
Probably about 1760–1810

Viceroyalty of Peru (Lima) (now Peru)

Carcase: tropical hardwood (possibly grenadillo)
Handles: turned wood (replaced)
Veneer: mother-of-pearl (possibly freshwater pearl mussel) and various tropical hardwoods, probably padouk, brazilwood and rosewood

Bequeathed by Miss Harriet F.L. Coward
Museum no. W.3-1943

The shimmering veneer is created using mother-of-pearl emphasised by thin ‘stringing’ in dark wood. There are about 7000 pieces of mother-of-pearl. Each was made from an individual section of shell, sawn roughly, ground smooth and then sawn again to the shape of a paper template. It probably took about 40 minutes to work each piece. [2018]
Probably about 1780–1820

Probably Mexico

Carcase: tropical hardwood (possibly grenadillo)
Handles: turned wood (replaced)
Veneer: mother-of-pearl (possibly freshwater pearl mussel) and various tropical hardwoods, probably padouk, brazilwood and rosewood

Bequeathed by Miss Harriet F.L. Coward
Museum no. W.3-1943

The shimmering veneer is created using mother-of-pearl emphasised by thin ‘stringing’ in dark wood. There are about 7000 pieces of mother-of-pearl. Each was made from an individual section of shell, sawn roughly, ground smooth and then sawn again to the shape of a paper template. It probably took about 40 minutes to work each piece. [01/12/2012]


Mother-of-pearl; Hardwood; Softwood


Cabinet-making; Veneering




Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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