Rolltop desk

(bureau à cylindre)

On display in:

Baron's Room

Order image © All images subject to copyright

artist or maker


marquetry panels after painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini (b.1691, d.1765)
after engraving by Pierre François Tardieu (b.1688, d.1754)
after engraving by Jean Baptiste de Lorraine
marquetry panels after painting by Jacques de Lajoüe (b.1686, d.1761)
after engraving by Charles-Nicolas Cochin I père (French, b.1688, d.1754)
mounts by Danchot


c 1777-c 1781

date stamped on bronze gallery

Place of production

  • Paris?, France


  • oak, pine, tulipwood, purpleheart, mahogany, sycamore, holly, boxwood, ebony, ivory, gilt bronze

Type of object

  • rolltop desks

Accession number


Roll-top desk decorated with marquetry images reflecting the interests of Caron de Beaumarchais and elaborate gilt-bronze mounts.

According to tradition, this cylinder-top desk was made for Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732 – 1799). He was a French playwright and polymath and is perhaps most famous as the author of "The Marriage of Figaro" (1778) and "The Barber of Seville" (1773). In the inventory drawn up after Beaumarchais’ death a “grand secretaire a cilindre” is listed in the grand cabinet of his sumptuous Paris house. Although the inventory does not include a description of the distinctive decoration, it is likely that it describes the desk now at Waddesdon.


An ingenious example of mechanical furniture, the desk houses multiple moving shelves and secret drawers. All the moving parts, including the massive cylinder top, are controlled by a single key.

Much of the decoration of the desk seems to allude to Beaumarchais and his many achievements. On the writing slide are trompe l’oeil renderings in marquetry of two texts, on the left the title page of Beaumarchais’ pamphlet "Observations sur le Memoire justificatif de la cour de Londres" (1779) and on the right a sheet which reads "Considérations sur L’Indépendance de L’Amérique" – probably a memorandum sent by Beaumarchais to Louis XVI.

The inscriptions reference the discourse around American independence within which Beaumarchais was a central figure. As a ship owner Beaumarchais’ fleet headed by the Amphitrite was the first to successfully deliver arms to the American insurgents. This feat may be suggested by the mermaids at the four corners of the desk.

The decoration of the desk is unusual in its pictorial marquetry after famous paintings and engravings. There are two oval panels after Jacques de Lajoue II (1687-1761), one on the back of the desk and one on the cylinder top, representing Astronomy and Optics, which might reference Beaumarchais’ position as a watchmaker and inventor.

The three panels on the hinged upper picture gallery depict ruins after Giovanni Paulo Panini (1691-1765), echoing pictures in Beaumarchais’ own collection. Further marquetry panels depict still-lifes of fruit and scrolling acanthus leaves.

The desk was offered for sale by lottery in Paris in 1831. One of the lottery tickets costing 50 francs and an accompanying engraving was found in one of its secret drawers. The inscription on both states that the desk was made by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) for Beaumarchais for 85,000 francs, although these claims are unproven. The marquetry, carcase construction and mechanism are different from other cylinder-top desks known to be by Riesener and could possibly be the work of Jean-François Leleu (1729-1807), a cabinetmaker who specialised in sophisticated mechanical furniture.

However, the desk is not stamped or signed and the design of such a large and complex piece may even have been the work of an architect or designer rather than a cabinetmaker. A stamp on the gilt-bronze gallery explains that it was made between 1777 and 1781 by Danchot, an as yet unidentified bronze caster or chaser, and it seems likely that the whole construction was executed around this time.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm) / weight (mg)

1335 x 2108 x 1137


vale / 3#
[in ink on the underside of the upper left drawer of the nest]

9 mai [?..7.] / pr 6# 12
[in ink on the underside of the centre drawer of the lower stage]

5 may / 4#
[in ink on the underside of the lower left drawer of the lower stage]

5 avril 1778 / pr 4#
[ink on the underside of the upper left drawer of the lower stage]

pour 10#
[in ink on the underside of the safe drawer on the right of the lower stage]

Repaired By J Wood / at Mr Baldocks 1832
[in pencil beneath the false bottom of the upper right-hand drawer of the nest]

Repaired by E. C. Souter / at Gore house Exhibition 1853.
[in pencil beneath the false bottom of the upper right-hand drawer of the nest]



  • Made for Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799); offered as a lottery prize in Paris in 1831; acquired by the dealer Edward Holmes Baldock (1777-1845) by 1832; owned by Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, 5th Duke of Buccleuch and 7th Duke of Queensbury (1806-1884) from 1832; acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) from William Henry Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 6th Duke of Buccleuch and 8th Duke of Queensbury (1831-1914) prior to 1897; inherited by Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922); inherited by James de Rothschild (1878-1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon (National Trust) in 1957.

Exhibition history

  • Gore House, Kensington, 1853


  • Waddesdon (National Trust)
  • Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957


  • J C Robinson; FSA; Catalogues of Specimens of Cabinet Work, and of Studies from the Schools of Art, Exhibited at Gore House, Kensington; Gore House, Kensington, London; London; Her Majesty's Stationery Office; 1853; no. 131.
  • Sir Francis Watson, French Eighteenth Century Furniture at Waddesdon, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 54, August 1959, 28-31; ill.
  • Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Flowers in Wood, Apollo, 87, 1968, 12-21; ill.
  • Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Anthony Blunt; Furniture Clocks and Gilt Bronzes: The James A de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; 2 vols; Fribourg; Office du Livre; 1974; pp. 308-326, cat. no. 65, ill.
  • Mark Girouard; Historic Houses of Britain; London; Artus Publishing Company Limited; 1979; p. 124, ill.
  • Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais; Beaumarchais Le Voltigeur des Lumieres; Paris; Éditions Gallimard; 1996; ill. p. 50
  • Linley, Sunday Telegraph Review on Extraordinary Furniture, 1996; ill.
  • Donald C. Spinelli; L’Inventaire après décès de Beaumarchais; Paris; Honoré Champion; 1997; p. 55.
  • Maurice Lever; Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais:Tome III. Dans la tourmente 1785-1799; France; Librairie Arthème Fayard; 2004; ill. between pp. 220-221
  • Les collections exceptionnelles des Rothschild: Waddesdon Manor (Hors-série de l'Estampille/l'Objet d'Art, No. 14); Dijon; Éditions Faton; 2004; pp. 10-21.
  • Treasures from The National Trust; London; The National Trust; 2007; pp. 114-115.
  • ♦; Juliette Hibou, Waddesdon Manor: l'histoire d'une passion, Dossier de l'art, 172, March 2010, 93-95; p. 94, ill.

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