Although not an American-made piece, this writing table has an extraordinary association with diplomatic history. It is said to have served for the signing of the treaty that established American independence. As the British commissioner for creating the treaty recognizing the new United States, the formal acknowledgment of independence between Great Britain and her rebellious American colonies, David Hartley was sent to Paris in 1783 in order to speed up the negotiations, which had extended for more than a year, and he took the desk with him.1For a full account of the negotiations, see Bemis 1959 and Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers, rev. ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983). He was a member of Parliament as well as a friend of Benjamin Franklin, the most influential of the American commissioners. The signing of the official peace treaty between Great Britain, on one side, and France and Spain, on the other, was performed at Versailles on September 3, 1783. Austria and Russia sent representatives to act as mediators.
In an effort to reduce the stature of France in guaranteeing American independence, Hartley acquiesced to the American suggestion for a separate treaty. The American commissioners, Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, met privately with Hartly, on the morning of September 3 in his rooms at the Hôtel de York and signed a treaty entitled “The Definitive Treaty of Peace between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.” (Adams later regretted the decision to avoid signing the Versailles treaty, because it would have meant instant recognition of America by both Austria and Russia.)
The name “Shepherd” on the table may refer to the original cabinetmaker. There were several Shepherds working in the furniture trade in London about 1780, and two Shepherds, George and Thomas, subscribed to Thomas Sheraton’s Drawing Book in 1793. Without a first name, however, there call be no further attribution to this date.2Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert, eds., Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660–1840 (Leeds, England: W.S. Maney and Son, Ltd, 1986), 807.
The table’s tambour device, adopted from France, became very fashionable in England from the 1770s. Large numbers of tambour writing tables were made to several standard designs. Thomas Shearer published the first illustration in his widely consulted Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices of 1788.3In Shearer’s book, writing tables had one tier of drawers while desks had two or more (See Cabinetmakers: London Book of Prices, pl. 13, fig. 2).
In 1926, J. Wilson Sons and Coombe, an English auction house, sent the writing table to a sale in Evanston, Illinois, in the hope of attracting Henry Ford who was then assembling his remarkable collection of Americana at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford’s agent missed the auction and the writing table went to the Stein family. In 1963, this desk came to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, a fitting resting place for the object that assisted the first formal diplomatic act recognizing American independence.
Gilbert Tapley Vincent
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.