Recently, Classical American Homes Preservation Trust was the recipient of a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Tananbaum of New York City of an exceptionally fine late eighteenth-century, Philadelphia tambour desk and bookcase. Firmly attributed to John Aitken (1770-1814), this tambour desk and bookcase is virtually identical to one made by the cabinetmaker for President George Washington that is now at Mount Vernon and is documented as having cost $145.00 and as being delivered to Washington’s home in Philadelphia on March 13, 1797 .
The only difference between President Washington’s tambour desk and bookcase and the one given to Classical American Homes is the pediment on the top of the former example, though this is now believed to be a later addition. In designing these tambour desks and bookcases, Aitken borrowed from the two principal British Neoclassical pattern books utilized by American cabinetmakers in Federal period. In overall form they appear to derive from the “Tambour Writing Table and Bookcase” shown in plate 69 of George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London, 1794), while the design of the muntins in their glazed doors relate to plate 29, No. 1, in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1791). An inventive new feature of the Neoclassical period, sliding tambours are flexible panels formed of strips of mahogany applied to a canvas backing that allowed the cylinder-shaped lid to be pushed up and into the case behind the small drawers and pigeon holes in the writing compartment.
The recently acquired Philadelphia tambour desk and bookcase is undergoing some minor conservation work and soon will be installed in the west parlor at Ayr Mount, home to some of the earliest Neoclassical furniture in the collection. Here it should feel very much at home with the superb London-made grand piano forte, an original Kirkland family possession also from the 1790s, and a Salem gentleman’s secretary bookcase with painted and gilded verre églomisé door panels. Be sure to stop by and see this splendid new acquisition at Ayr Mount the next time you are near Hillsborough, North Carolina.