03 March 2015

An 18th century desk - for work or for drinking pleasure?

In the later C18th, when the object called a sideboard was transforming into a large and important piece of furniture, the cellaret was merely a detached receptacle. The cellaret was an elegant piece of mahogany furniture, almost always designed in the neo-classicist style, that could be octagonal, circular or oval. The important part was actually inside, lined with zinc partitions to hold the bottles and ice. A tap might be fixed in the lower part for drawing off the water from the melted ice.

Cellarets reached their heyday during the second half of the 18th century, perfect timing for British designer Robert Adam (1728–1792). In his Works In Architecture of 1778, Adam suggested that his countrymen liked to partake of wine even more than the French!

The considerable amount of wine consumed by the Eng­lish and French upper class required bespoke furniture forms that could accommodate the storing, chilling and serving of wine. Important diners did not want to have to wait for the serving staff to be racing back and forward to the large wine cellar below the house, or out in the gardens of the estate.

George II cellaret, mahogany
40 cm high; 73 cm wide; 38 cm deep. 

George III cellaret, mahogany
with reeded corners
zinc lining and zinc partitions,
44 cm high, 78 cm wide, 57 cm deep
photo: Online Galleries

Some craftsmen chose to specialise in cellaret design and manufacture. Cellarets could be built into sideboards that would have stood in the dining room. Others were free standing i.e plain or decorated containers that did nothing beyond what a cellaret was designed to do – hold bottles of wine. For example, see the George II mahogany cellaret in the top photo that had a rather plain, hinged rectangular top enclosing divisions for eighteen bottles. The sides were carried by handles and then sat on the floor on bracket feet.

But then I found a cellaret in a piece of furniture that a] had nothing to do with food or drink and b] was never placed in a dining room. Examine a George II mahogany pedestal desk (below) that had oak drawer linings and gilt metal mounts - this desk would have sat proudly in the study. Yet the pedestal desk hid two secrets - an unusual cellaret drawer and a side compart­ment for glasses. The elegance of its design, quality of timber and craftsmanship, and its fine quality gilt metal handles suggest a dis­tinguished London workshop. But what was the owner thinking, having quiet tipples in his study, perhaps with an important guest? And did his wife know?

George II pedestal desk
Mahogany, c1760
148 x 77 x 75 cms
Photo credit: Solomon Bly

same desk with zinc cellaret

same desk with compartment for glasses

The auction house Solomon Bly suggested that Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) might have been the London cabinet-maker responsible for this clever, hidden design. This is not as far fetched as it seems since Chippendale was known to have collaborated in furnishing a couple of interiors designed by Robert Adam. But did he make hundreds of desks with a zinc cellaret and a space for glasses, or was this a once-off design for a special friend?

Some time later I found a George III mahogany cabinet that was never a desk; rather it looked like an expensive chest of drawers. At the bottom, two of the "drawers" were actually a cellaret with fourteen compartments for wine bottles. Auctioned by Aingers, this chest of drawers was 91cm high, 65cm wide, 42cm deep. It too suggests to me that Georgian gentlemen with money were very inventive with the furniture they used to store, or perhaps hide, wine.

George III mahogany, apparently a normal chest of drawers
Contains a cellaret with 14 compartments for wine bottles.
91cm x 65cm x 42cm.
Photo credit: EJ Ainger


Joe said...

I love the open and decorated celllaret where the diners could see the bottles they were going to be drinking from. It rightfully belonged in a beautiful dining room.

Andrew said...

What a sophisticated way to hide your habits. A guest must have been very pleased to see a drawer opened for them. Yes, white wine must be properly chilled.

Hels said...


agreed. The open George III cellaret, made from mahogany with reeded corners and paw feet, is very refined. Refined and honest!

Hels said...


these pieces of furniture were all George II (ruled 1727-1760) and George III (ruled 1760–1820). Normally we think of the temperance movement getting going only from the 1850s on, but perhaps there were other earlier movements that we are not familiar with. Perhaps the guests waiting for the drawer to open were Methodists.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Perhaps a desk-cellaret was intended for an office-type space rather than for residential use. Or maybe for some sort of bachelor quarters where a full-sized cellaret or dining room was not required.

The open designs have a pleasing look, but I bet the closed pieces were much more efficient at insulating and cooling, especially on a hot summer day when ice was at a premium.

These multi-use pieces must have appealed to the inventive spirit of the day, as they certainly do to ours.

Hels said...


Those Georgian designers were brilliant - metamorphic furniture, multiple use furniture and furniture compact enough to fit into ordinary homes (and not palaces). They appealed to the inventive spirit then and you are so right... we still consider them to be very clever today.

Patricia said...

Helen when we examined Chippendale furniture design in lectures, I printed out and stored images that appealed to me. Here is one of mahogany desks attributed to Thomas Chippendale that reminds me of the desk in the post.


Hels said...


thank you for the reference... I am impressed. The two desks are very similar in the material they are made from, the exact number and location of drawers, the moulded plinth base and the date of manufacture!

Lord Cowell said...

Wonderful post on cellarets and Georgian furniture. I had always wondered why they had the zinc linings, but had never twigged that they were for ice to chill the wine.

There is a wonderful mahogany casket cellaret for sale locally in NZ, similar to the one with the reeded corners in your post. It is Irish, and is being sold for a pretty penny.

I wonder over the centuries how the taboo of alcohol has waxed and waned. Obviously drinking to excess has never been a stylish thing to do, but to go to the lengths demonstrated to conceal alcohol and glasses in a desk, one wonders whether the person who commissioned it had a bit of a problem, or whether there were other reasons for wanting to hide one's alcohol?

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

Do you have the auction reference for the mahogany cellaret being sold in New Zealand? I would love to see an Irish-designed and crafted piece of furniture from the same era.

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