Step 3: Michael very delicately opens the roll-top front of the desk. revealing the interior.
Posted 26 June 2018

Art & architecture

GDPR – 18th century style

Following National Technology Week we asked our Curatorial Assistant, Michael Shrive, to consider how Waddesdon’s historic collection still resonates with today’s, technologically savvy, audience.

The roll-top desk as it appears in the Tower Drawing Room - the carcase is of oak and the upper stages of the drawers are of mahogany.
Roll-top desk, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), c.1775, acc. 2544

We are constantly reminded of the importance of protecting our personal data. With the growing rise of cyber-crime and identity theft, the importance of updating passwords, and protecting ones ‘chip and pin’, has perhaps become as natural as locking the front door. In today’s fast changing world technology plays a vital role in this fight. Recent years have seen the introduction of voice activation; fingerprint technology; and face recognition.

Just over 200 years ago, Marie-Antoinette bemoaned the difficulty in keeping secrets at court – fearing no paper was safe; concerned about shady goings-on during the night. In a world where access to court secrets denoted influence and power, technology, too, played a role in securing the confidential.

Originating in the mid-18th century the roll-top desk was innovatory. Closing the top secured papers in an instant, akin, maybe, to closing the modern-day laptop.

Here Michael demonstrates the locking mechanism on Riesener's roll-top 19th century desk.
A single key operates an ingenious mechanism – offering access to all
Step 2: The security of the desk is so well designed, it is important for Michael to handle the locking system carefully.
Effortless elegance: The spring-loaded roll-top affords ease of opening
Step 3: Michael very delicately opens the roll-top front of the desk. revealing the interior.
A design innovation: The roll-top allowed papers to be secured in an instant

Prior to the roll-top desk, papers had to be cleared from the table top, filed into drawers, and locked away – a time consuming process. The roll-top desk probably supplied to Louis XV’s daughter, Marie-Adélaïde (1732-1800), around 1775, by Jean Henri Riesener (1734-1806), and now at Waddesdon Manor, features an ingenious locking mechanism operated by a single key.

The original set of keys used to open the complex security system of Riesener's roll-top desk.
Not unlike inadvertently revealing a password, it was noted by a contemporary how Marie-Antoinette ‘…fears the double keys…’.

The desk also contains an additional secret compartment, accessible only through removing further drawers. Then, as now, we all have things we never want to share. With the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, the use, control and safeguarding of our personal data is, once again, a hot topic. While drawing historic parallels can often be challenging, it equally serves to remind us of some of the basic behaviour and concerns that we share with our not so distant past.         

When making it through the ingenious locking system of the roll-top desk, you can see the writing stand pulls out, surrounded by compartmental drawers.
The interior revealed: Roll-top desk, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), c.1775, acc. 2544

See Riesener’s Roll Top Desk, c.1775, Tower Drawing Room in our collection online >