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Contemporary design: when Lord Bath had to sell two antique desks, he decided to replace them with the finest modern equivalents for himself and his wife. As Amicia de Moubray explains, he turned to Senior & Carmichael, with inspired results.

The Marquess of Bath has never been afraid to swap the staidly traditional for the colourfully contemporary. The latest excitement at his Wiltshire seat, Longleat, is the arrival of two significant pieces of new design. Following a sale at Christie's that included two antique desks from the house, Lord Bath and the estate's trustees decided to commission replacements by one of England's most distinguished firms of designer craftsmen, Senior & Carmichael. Lord Bath's desk arrived at Longleat earlier this year, followed by Lady Bath's in April. They handsomely demonstrate how an imaginative patron can successfully add new pieces to a historic ensemble.

Meticulously executed, the desks are totally different in essentials. Lord Bath's has a distinctive masculine solidity; his wife's is extremely delicate in its refinement. But they share a sophisticated degree of technical knowledge and painstaking craftsmanship, and have one similar feature. Both desks have integral pivoting swan-necked bronze and stainless-steel lamps with flexes discreetly hidden in their necks.

Senior & Carmichael have an impressive record of designing and making furniture with great sensitivity for important historic interiors. Recent commissions include a folio cabinet commissioned by Lord Egremont for a room in the private quarters at Petworth House, Sussex, and four cabinets to house 9,000 architectural drawings by Robert and James Adam, together with other furniture, for the new Robert Adam Study Centre at Sir John Soane's Museum, London. They have designed and are currently making a large meeting table for the Tapestry Room at Chevening, Kent, the official residence of the Foreign Secretary. Rupert Senior and Charles Wheeler-Carmichael met while studying furniture and design at Parnham College. In partnership since 1984, they have been awarded 13 Guild Marks for excellence by the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers. A gilded chair advertising their profession hangs outside their workshop, based in a 19th-century carpenter's shop near London.

Wheeler-Carmichael grew up in a house in the Scottish Borders designed by Ramsay Traquair, son of the famous Arts and Crafts designer Phoebe Traquair. Both his grandparents were architects: his grandmother worked for Lutyens in the 1920s. Senior was brought up in London. His mother was a professional opera singer and writer and his forebears include Sir Terence Rattigan and at least one cabinetmaker.

In fulfilling Lady Bath's request for a 'feminine and romantic' desk, Senior & Carmichael were inspired by Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, source of the scallop-shell motif that forms the basis of the desk's design and is the leitmotif the bronze counterweights and handles (Fig. 2). The leather writing surface, specially produced in the USA, is blue, with a subtle hint of gold, recalling Botticelli's foaming sea.


The desk's curved canopy (Fig. 1) is of pale ripple sycamore resembling the ribs of a scallop shell. The wood has been carefully selected to ensure that the configuration of the grain runs throughout the canopy. The canopy opens effortlessly, balanced by its scallop-shell bronze counterweights. Slight changes in humidity, which are inevitable, affect its weight, making it impossible ever to achieve perfect equilibrium. To deal with this, the inside of the bronze pivots contain plates and springs that create friction to overcome variations in weight and maintain a balance in all seasons. The plates are made from bronze and stainless steel which are set alternately, so lubrication is not required. All these working parts are skilfully concealed.


Lady Bath asked that her desk be constructed entirely from home-grown English hardwoods. Senior & Carmichael used a yew tree from a local estate laid out by Repton, salvaged after the great storm of 1987. The bronze scallop-shell handles and counterweights and Lady Bath's monograms were initially modelled by Senior & Carmichael in plasticine and then plaster. Finally they were cast in bronze and fettled and finished by hand to achieve a fine degree of detail. The casting itself is the only aspect of the commission not undertaken in-house. 'By doing everything ourselves, we retain complete control over every process', says Senior.

There are hidden drawers on either side of the desk. Inside it, pigeonholes border a small central door with Lady Bath's monogram: a marchioness's coronet over a shield emblazoned with 'A' for Anna, her Christian name (Fig. 3). When the desk is closed a more formal and discreet 'AB' in bronze is visible in the centre of the upper drawer.


The desk's locking mechanisms are also unique to Senior & Carmichael. Ingeniously, the canopy is secured below the writing surface by a hidden locking catch, which also secures the middle drawer. When the catch is unlocked and released, an internal spring lifts the canopy fractionally clear of the writing surface. As a result the canopy has a pleasing purity uncluttered by handles or locks.

The brief for Lord Bath's desk was unusual in that it is a two-sided piece (Fig. 4). As well as being a writing desk, it is also a cabinet housing his collection of 'photoguest' books (Fig. 6). Begun by his mother at his birth in 1932, they chronicle his entire life, and he is still adding new volumes. To ensure that the albums are secure (the room in which the desk stands is visited by the public), lockable vertical bars of stainless steel and bronze pivot across each side of the books. 'The original design thinking behind the locking bars was specifically to preserve the feeling of a private home with the books on view and seemingly accessible, rather than being semi-hidden behind locked doors like a display case in a museum', says Wheeler-Carmichael. The bars are mechanically driven by concealed gears and clock springs that are secured by catches and locks. These intricacies are typical of Senior & Carmichael's delight in designing highly sophisticated mechanisms. Both the Longleat desks are testimony to the partners' inventiveness and technical prowess.


Lord Bath also wanted his desk to be made entirely from home-grown English hardwoods and the trees used are in different ways remarkable. Fortuitously, Senior & Carmichael had saved a walnut tree that came down in the 1987 storm for a suitably worthy commission. 'Trees of this quality are now virtually unobtainable', says Senior. Salvaged from Clandon Park, Surrey, the walnut forms the main body of the desk. Senior & Carmichael wanted the corner pillars to be in a darker contrasting wood. In the past, ebony would have been the natural choice, but, as Lord Bath had insisted on English wood, peat-preserved bog oak from the Cambridgeshire fens was used instead. Similar timber has been carbon-dated to 5,000 BC by Cambridge University. When this rare wood is unearthed it is almost black in colour. The drying is a 'tricky process', remarks Senior, and took five years. The main drawers are burr walnut on the exterior and English oak on the interior. The inner drawers are yew with sycamore and cedar.

Although this is a substantial piece of furniture, Senior & Carmichael have given it a subtle fluidity by gently curving both sides, giving it 'shape and elegance'. The desk's leather writing surface is purple, Lord Bath's favourite colour (Fig. 6). It is covered by a roll-top tambour bordered with a handmade stainless steel and bronze chain, allowing the desk to be closed to hide private correspondence. Inside is a small chest-of-drawers with pigeonholes that match the dimensions of Lord Bath's personal stationery, a final touch of thoughtful elegance in an inspired commission that will be a much applauded enhancement of Longleat's furniture collection.

Senior & Carmichael, Whitehouse Workshop, Betchworth, Surrey, RH3 7DN, tel: + 44 (0) 1737 844316.

For information on visiting Longleat, telephone + 44 (0) 1985 844400, or visit
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Author:de Moubray, Amicia
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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