Painted Escritoire by William Burges and W. Gualbert Saunders. 1867. Height 101 1/2 inches; length 42 1/2 inches; width 20 3/4 inches. Painted wood in an eccentrically Gothic form, with cupboards, drawers, a calendar, the whole surmounted by a gable roof.

During the later 1860s Burges moved away from Morris and his immediate circle. Both had been pivotal figures in the Pre-Raphaelite revolution which swept over the decorative arts towards the end of the 1850s. But unlike Morris, Burges was fundamentally apolitical. And although he certainly shared Morris's commitment to the revival of mediaeval crafts, he came to regard the stained glass produced by Morris and Co. as increasingly tainted with Renaissance freedom. As a counter, therefore to Morris, Burges sponsored what were in effect his own firms, first Saunders & Co. and then Worrall & Co. In their unflinching mediaevalism he had absolute confidence.

W. Gualbert Saunders arrived in Burges's office in November 1865. With brief interruptions because of ill health, he worked with Burges — or with Burges's satellites. Henry Holiday, J. S. Chappie and H. W. Lonsdale — for fifteen years. It was probably at Waltham Abbey that he executed his first stained glass for Burges, in 1868. By 1870 he had retreated temporarily to Poitiers. And when he finally left England in 1880, it was his assistant William Worrall who carried on the firm and its Burgesian traditions.

Between 1865 and 1868 Burges and Saunders seem to have been engaged in producing two related writing cabinets or painted escritoires. One of these was designed for Burges's own use (R. P. Pullan, House of William Burges, 1885, pis. 10-11; sold 1933; present location unknown). The other may well have been made for Saunders himself. All its features are essentially Burgesian. The finials, the calendar and the gabled roof echo the Yatman Cabinet in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The counterbalanced door echoes Burges's Architecture Cabinet (Burges, 'Own Furniture', R.I.B.A. album, pis. 11-12; present location unknown). The allegories of childhood, youth, manhood and old age, as well as the figures emblematic of 'the conditions of life' — peasant, knight, king, bishop, merchant — and the tiles depicting the history of communication, were all paralleled in Burges's own writing cabinet. And many of the subsidiary motifs — roots, tendrils, butterflies, monsters — can be traced to sketches by Burges (e.g. V. & A., P. and D. 93E8). The clock and bells, however, seem to be unique, and justify perhaps the personal inscription: 'Gualbert Saunders Made Me, A.D. 1865'. That the painted decorations were not finished until 1867 is indicated by the coin-dated roundel: 'Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker'. The tiles are by Minton. But the identity of the artist, or artists, has yet to be demonstrated. Two possibilities are Charles Rossiter, who painted the parallel escritoire; and Henry Holiday, who was for a while in partnership with Saunders.

References

Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Two Pieces of Painted Furtniture by William Burges." Morris and Company. Exhibition catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society with Haslam & Whiteway Ltd., 1979. No. 5.

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