Monday, May 23, 2016

HMS Resolute and her Desks

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
t's widely-known that the "Resolute Desk," currently being used in the Oval Office by President Obama, was crafted from the timbers of the Franklin search ship HMS Resolute. The ship had become, by a strange twist of fate, a symbol of the "special relationship" between the US and the UK; having drifted from where she was abandoned deep in the Arctic archipelago, she was found by a whaling captain and piloted back to port in the United States. Restored to her former glory with funding from the US Congress, she was sailed back to Britain under the command of Henry Hartstene, and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift from the nation. The presentation ceremony, made while Resolute was anchored near the Queen's summer residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Man, was the subject of a famous engraving by William "Crimean" Simpson, a noted war illustrator, and both plain and colored versions -- such as this one at the Library of Congress -- were sold to the public.

US Government official photograph / public domain

It had been hoped by many at the time -- including Lady Franklin -- that the ship might once more be dispatched to the Arctic, but it was not to be. Which was why, when the vessel was being broken up in 1879, the Queen decided to have a series of desks made from her timbers. The large "partner's desk" in the Oval Office, originally used by Rurtherford B. Hayes, is by far the best-known, but the others -- three in number -- are no less significant in their own right.

The Queen had two desks made for herself. One, a modest writing-table or side-table, has a brass plaque similar (but not identical to) the one on the partner's desk; the other, a folding desk, was made for use aboard the Royal Yacht. Both, it now seems, are in Portsmouth, though not on display; the folding desk, indeed, is stored rather plainly, in a crate with a loose plastic cover. Confusion over the similar plaques -- along with the fact that the original plans, now at the National Maritime Museum, were departed from -- apparently led some sources, the Wikipedia among them, to incorrectly state that Her Majesty had also had a partner's size desk made for herself, but that was never the case.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

The largest of the other three, a ladies' writing desk, was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell, the whaling magnate who had leant so much of his time and resources to the search for Franklin; it currently resides at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Like many such desks of this period, it has two large compartments and a series of smaller ones built into its top; one may note that the door of one features a crowned lion, a
New Bedford Whaling Museum
heraldic device of the British monarchy, while the other shows a fouled anchor, the symbol of the Royal Navy.

The president's Resolute Desk has played a role in many dramas -- including the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- and, assuming the next resident of the White House decides to keep it, it will likely be a part of many more. For those of us who won't have a chance to see it there, there are at least five exact replicas at various presidential libraries -- Kennedy's, Reagan's, Noxon's, Carter's, and Clinton's -- or, if cost is no object, you can order your own replica for a mere $9,495.00 (marked down from $12,000). Of course, it won't be made with oak from the Resolute ... but it would still be certain to impress your friends!

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