By JOAN SAYERS BROW; from The Magazine ANTIQUES May 1978.
The handsome slant-front desk illustrated here was originally owned by Colonel George William Fairfax (1724-1787), whose estate, Bevoir, was near Mount Vernon on the Potomac River in Virginia. In April 1773 Fairfax took his wife, sally Cary, to England, after asking his neighbor George Washington to watch over Belvoir while they were away. Washington wrote to Fairfax from Mount Vernon on January 19,1773, “As you only require that I should have an eye to the conduct of your Steward or manager, and to remit his Collections, I can do it with very little difficulty.” According to Fairfax family tradition, the desk was moved from Belvoir to Mount Vernon at this time to hold the plantation’s papers.
Slant-front desk, American, 1769-1772. Mahogany, with pine and poplar the secondary woods; height 48, width 36, depth 34 inches. The brasses are old replacements. The slides tha tpull out to support the top are long narrow drawers. Private collection; photograph by Robert T. Lautman.
The political unrest in America so disturbed Fairfax that he decided to remain in England, and in the summer of 1774 he directed Washington to dispose of most of the chattels at Belvoir. Although Washington is known to have purchased a number of items from the estate, there is no record that he bought the desk.
Correspondence between Washington and Fairfax during the Revolution indicates that Washington, bus leading the army, asked Battaile Muse, the son of one of his officers, to oversee business at Mount Vernon and Belvoir. Muse continued to work at Belvoir after the house burned in 1783.
In 1787 Fairfax died in England. Washington, one of the three executors of his will in this country, wrote his co-executors, Wilson Miles Cary and George Nicholas, explaining that he was too busy to serve as an executor, and added, “Permit me to remind Mr. Nicholas that there is an excuritore with many Papers belonging to the deceased in my possession many of them of Great Value.”
Fig. 2 Back of the case containing the eight drawers behind the prospect door: four mahogany-front drawers facing forward and four secret drawers at the back concealed by the sliding panel propped against the case at the left. Lautman photograph.
Washington’s involvement with the Fairfax property must have continued, however, for on February 19, 1789, he wrote to Muse about rents, tenants, and various problems that Muse was having with the Fairfax lands. Washington advised him, “It is my duty to deliver whatever papers are in my hands belonging to the Estate of the late Colo Fairfax whenever required by an order from the Exets. But, as there are among them many papers of considerable consequence, which do not relate immediately to the Estate that is under your Care, I should advise you to have the desk in which they are contained put into the hands of the Revd. Mr. Bryan Fairfax [the son of Colonel George William Fairfax], Father to the young Gentleman who is heir to the Estate, and receive from time to time such papers only as you may have occasion for…” Family tradition maintains that the desk and papers were duly sent to the Reverend Bryan Fairfax at Mount Eagle, the estate on Hunting Creek, southwest of Alexandria, Virginia, which he had bought in January 1789. The desk has remained in the family ever since.
In addition to its interesting history, the desk is notable for its unusual interior. The fronts of the drawers and the surface of the prospect door are faced with tooled leather to look like the spines of books: a daybook, journal, and ledger on the prospect door, flanked by a cashbook and invoice book on the document drawers. The titles on the other drawer fronts are for the most part those of actual eighteenth-century books. At the top left are Compleat Ready Writer and Newton’s Arithmetick; on the bottom are A Brief View of Commerce in General, Dickinson on British Liberty, and Lex Marcat. At the upper right are Maike’s Book Keeping and British Negotiator, and at the bottom, Cumming’s Laws of Exchange, History of the World, and Lex Dei.