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What is a Davenport Desk?

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet

A Davenport desk is a writing table that features a hinged top and a number of drawers or compartments, allowing a significant amount of storage relative to the amount of space the piece occupies. It usually has elaborately carved legs and is often made from rich, dark woods like walnut or cherry. These desks are said to be called after a British military officer named Captain Davenport who conceived the design in coordination with a furniture maker, although no definitive evidence exists to support this story. First gaining popularity in the 19th century, the Davenport desk remains a sought-after item for many antiques enthusiasts.

One of the defining features of the Davenport desk is its top, which is attached with hinges to the rear of the piece so that it can be lifted from the front. This creates a compartment beneath the top in which the user can store materials like paper, pens, and ink out of sight. Often the top is flat and slants downward from the rear of the piece to the front, creating a comfortable writing surface for the user. In some models, the top is curved or rounded; while this may detract from the desk’s functionality, such curvature provides a decorative element that elevates the desk from a simple writing table to an ornamental furnishing.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The sides of a Davenport desk commonly feature drawers or cubbyholes, which are sometimes hidden by a wooden panel. These cubbies and drawers provide additional storage for the user, who might keep items like books within them. Their placement at the desk’s sides keeps the area below the desktop free, enabling maximum legroom. The inclusion of a panel to hide these storage areas again allows for the user’s possessions to be kept away from plain sight, further allowing the desk to serve as a decorative piece as well as a work unit.

Typically, the legs of a Davenport desk are quite thick and heavy. This design feature prevents the desk from tipping over despite its frontward-slanting top, which may be leaned upon by the user as he works, and the fact that heavy items are often stored within its compartments. In many cases, these legs are elaborately carved, contributing another decorative element to the piece.

Newly made Davenport-style desks can be purchased from many furniture retailers. Those who would prefer an authentic 19th-century desk should investigate the antiques market. Davenports are sometimes available at antiques shops, fairs, and auctions. Should a desk prove difficult to find, it can be helpful to consult an antiques expert, who may be willing to assist buyers in locating a desired piece.

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