lacquered wood, brass, ivory
The Museum’s three part black lacquerware writing desk is ornamented in gold and silver with designs of Chinese figures, buildings, island landscapes and floral borders. Two cabinet doors on the upper portion open onto six drawers, with two open cubbyholes, and two doors - one with a round hole and the other with a rotating oval portrait/clock at the center of the interior. The top portion also has a hidden drawer on the back right side, behind the desktop. The desktop in front of the top cabinet forms the middle portion. It has curved metal handles that allow the owner to lift this section off so it can be portable. The base supports the two upper portions on four curved cabriole legs with a curved apron running around the entire top and hair paw feet at the bottom. The wood beneath the lacquer is probably pine.
Lacquerware furniture was one of the most popular Chinese imports. In the late eighteenth-century, Japanese lacquerwork was considered higher quality than Chinese, but as Japan ports remained closed to westerners until 1853, most early lacquerware came from Canton. Chinese-made lacquerware furniture combined local decoration with European forms, learned from pattern books or exemplars brought from the west. The most popular models made for the export trade were armoires, gaming tables, and writing desks. Depending on the quality of the furniture, pieces would be coated in three to fifteen layers of lacquer made from sumac tree sap before being painted and gilded. Decorations often consisted of swirling grapevines, fluttering butterflies, fantastic landscapes, and garden scenes, variations of which are found on the Museum’s desk. Painting was done in a miniaturist style which required incredible finesse. While the artisanship of the facade was usually exquisite, the construction was often shoddy. Lightweight woods, thin paneling, and poor carpentry led to cracking and warping once the furniture reached the West. Our piece has not been exempt from these conditions.
Import records indicate that a large amount of China trade furniture was ordered on commission, especially early in the trade, possibly because the voyage was long and the goods fragile enough to make speculative purchasing risky. Merchants with ships sailing between China and the Eastern ports were much more likely to own furniture acquired in the China trade. Before the Mount Vernon Hotel was a hotel, it was originally built as a large carriage house and stable for a mansion house nearby that was owned between 1798 and 1808 by China trade merchant William T. Robinson. So it is likely that there was a great deal of Chinese export pieces on our site throughout its history. China trade merchants like Robinson established New York as a center for exotic Asian wares. Once our building was converted into a public establishment competing with other fashionable hotels in the city and country, the proprietor would showcased objects like lacquerware to entice visitors. In the May 1827 New-York Post ad, first proprietor Joseph W. Rogers, the first proprietor, boasts that he “is now fitting up [Mount Vernon] in a style calculated for a first rate Hotel.” To have China trade items available for guests at the Mount Vernon Hotel would be a status symbol for the proprietor, symbolizing his connection with China trade merchants and the luxury goods they bring, as well as his knowledge about tast