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Mechanical writing table
  • Mechanical writing table
    Oeben, Jean-François, born 1721 - died 1763
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Mechanical writing table

  • Place of origin:

    France (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1760 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Oeben, Jean-François, born 1721 - died 1763 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oak, veneered with tulipwood, with marquetry of rosewood, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, ebony, tulipwood and others; in part stained, shaded and engraved with gilt bronze mounts

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by John Jones

  • Museum number:

    1095:1 to 3-1882

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 3, case FS, shelf BY WW []

The Parisian cabinet-maker Jean-François Oeben invented this form of small, mechanical writing table in about 1750 and many were made, in a range of sizes. Oeben specialized in mechanical gadgetry and this table uses a complicated mechanism of ratchets and springs so that when the drawer is pulled forward, the top surface of the table moves backwards automatically, until the inner compartment is fully accessible. Oeben was also well known for the kind of delicate floral marquetry that decorates this piece. He was appointed cabinet-maker to the king in 1754. A portrait of the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, painted with her young daughter, and so dateable to before the death of the young girl in 1754, includes a table of just this pattern.

Physical description

Mechanical writing table of oak, with serpentine sides, veneered with tulipwood, with marquetry of rosewood, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, ebony and other woods, in part stained, shaded and engraved to form decorative patterns of flowers and foliage, the table mounted in gilt bronze. The top of this table moves back on a spung mechanism as the drawer pulls out to reveal hidden compartments and a writing surface, lined with purple velvet.

The spring for the main compartment is cleverly released using the lock in the drawer front. When the key is turned once to the right, the bolt drops from its engagement in the top front rail of the drawer unit, unlocking the drawer. If the key is turned a second time to the right, a bolt drops down through the drawer front to press on one end of a long steel lever. This triggers the spring mechanism, pushing the table top back and pulling the main drawer compartment forward. This can sometimes be a bit reluctant. As the main compartment moves forward a reading slope is automatically released and springs up on a ratchet system.

A square steel frame around the underside of the base of the main drawer pulls forward to release the ratchet system for the reading slope, to allow the top to be closed once more, The front lip of the reading slope is hinged and can simply be folded flat. When the reading slope is flat, it is held in place by a steel spring catch. The surface is covered with purple velvet (probably a replacement) that provides a writing surface when flat.

Place of Origin

France (made)


ca. 1760 (made)


Oeben, Jean-François, born 1721 - died 1763 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Oak, veneered with tulipwood, with marquetry of rosewood, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, ebony, tulipwood and others; in part stained, shaded and engraved with gilt bronze mounts

Marks and inscriptions

CR below a closed crown, the whole above two V's overlapping
Stamped on the underside, on a strut across the centre of the carcase

Painted in black underneath the front rail and partially illegible.


Height: 679 mm, Width: 725 mm, Depth: 400 mm closed

Object history note

In the collection of John Jones before 1882, when it was bequeathed to the Museum. Nothing is known of its earlier history.

This pattern of writing table was made in several versions by the cabinet-maker Jean-François Oeben (1721-1763), in various sizes and with different levels of mechanical and decorative sophistication. It seems likely that Oeben invented the form and it is certain that he popularised it. A version was owned by Madame de Pompadour, and is shown in a miniature portrait of her painted by François Guérin, probably in 1763. That portrait shows her with her daughter Alexandrine, who died in 1754 aged 10 but the setting may reflect a slightly later interior (See Madame de Pompadour et les Arts, catalogue of an exhibition at the Château de Versailles, 2002, the catalogue by Xavier Salmon and others, published by the RMN Paris, 2002, pp. 156-7). That table is seen to the left, with the drawer/writing compartment pulled forward. Its fully cabriole legs suggest a slighly early version of the form than that of the V&A table, which has more upright legs, but the side that is visible shows a panel of trellis marquetry, that might be considered more suggestive of the developing neo-classical style. Two surviving tables are close to that model. One is in the Louvre, Paris and is illustrated in Decorative Furnishings and Objets d'Art in the Louvre, ed. Jannic Durand etc al. (Louvre Editions, Paris, 2014), no. 155, pp. 386-7 (inv. no. OA 10404). A very similar table is in the J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, illustrated in Gillian Wilson and Catherine Hess, Summary Catalogue of European Decorative Arts in the J.Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001), no. 64, pp. 36-37 (inv. no. 71.DA.103). There is, however, no historical connection between either of these and Madame de Pompadour.

Other versions of the table are found in many major collections and appear from time to time in auctions. The major accounts of the closest to the V&A table include:

Langer, Brigitte, Die Möbel der Residenz München I. Die französischen Möbel des 18. Jahrhunderts (Munich, Prestel, 1995), no. 27, pp. 133-136. This table is wider than the V&A table but the floral marquetry is very similar in style.

Baarsen, Reinier, Paris 1650-1900. Decorative Arts in the Rijksmuseum (Yale University Press in Association with the Rijksmuseum, London and Amsterdam, 2013), no. 40, pp. 174-177. This table is close to the V&A table, but is slightly wider. It shows similar floral marquetry and the double stringing in white and black outlining panels - a motif used frequently by Oeben.

Descriptive line

Mechanical writing table, oak, veneered with tulipwood, with marquetry of rosewood, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, ebony, tulipwood and others, in part stained, shaded and engraved with gilt bronze mounts, Jean-François Oeben, ca.1760, France.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Greenhalgh, Paul (Ed.), Art Nouveau: 1890-1914 . London: V&A Publications, 2000
W.G. Paulson Townsend, Measured drawings of French furniture in the South Kensington Museum (London, Truslove & Hanson, 1899), part 9, plates 85-7.
Boutemy, André, Meubles Français Anonymes du XVIIIe Siècle. Brussels: Editions de l'Université, 1973, pp. 226-230
Sargentson, Carolyn, 'Looking at Furniture Inside Out: Strategies of Secrecy and Security in Eighteenth-Century French Furniture', in Furnishing the Eighteenth Century. What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past, ed. Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg. New York and London: Routledge, 2007 (ISBN 10:0-415-94953-X), pp. 205-236, this piece discussed on pp. 228-230, and illustrated further in colour plates after p. 118

Labels and date

Writing table
About 1760

This type of writing table was invented by the French royal cabinet-maker Oeben in the 1750s. He specialised in gadgetry such as the large springs that push forward the writing compartment as the table top moves back. He made many versions of this design. In 1756 Louis XV granted him workshops, with special permission to build his own forge.

By Jean-François Oeben
Oak; marquetry in European or tropical woods; gilded copper alloy mounts
Bequeathed by John Jones
[Label text by Peter Thornton}
Lady's writing table
French (Paris); about 1760

Marquetry of harewood, tulipwood, sycamore and other woods. Mounted in ormolue. Stamped underneath wiht a crown above the letter 'CR' and a double 'V', which may indicate that this piece was formerly among the furnishings of the Palace of Versailles. It is likely to have been made in the workshops of the royal cabinet-maker, Jean-Francois Oeben (d. 1763), who produced a number of very similar tables.

Jones Collection
Museum No. 1095-1882 [1980]


Oak; Tulipwood; Rosewood; Sycamore; Purplewood; Boxwood; Gilt bronze; Velvet; Steel


Cabinet-making; Veneering; Marquetry; Casting; Chasing; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Flowers; Foliage




Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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