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Lawrence BUTLER

Wexford, Ireland 1750 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1820

  • to Australia 1802

The Governor King secretaire bookcase 1803-1806 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: furniture, bookcases secrétaires, cedar, Australian rosewood, beefwood veneers, metal, glass, baleen

Dimensions: open 169.0 h x 79.0 w x 71.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Euphemia Grant Lipp Bequest Fund 2011
Accession No: NGA 2011.944.A-J

This secretaire bookcase is one of the single most important pieces of Australian furniture, with its continuous family provenance, connection to a notable early governor, history of construction and use and accomplished craftsmanship by Sydney convict cabinetmaker Lawrence Butler.

Butler was born in Ireland in 1750 and worked as a cabinetmaker in the north of County Wexford. He joined rebels in the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and was convicted in 1799 for aiding the murder of a loyalist. His sentence was transportation for life to New South Wales. He arrived in 1802 and was assigned to work as a carpenter in the Sydney Lumber Yard. He received a conditional pardon from Lieutenant-Governor Foveaux in 1808 and then surrendered it to Governor Macquarie in 1810 in return for a ticket of leave. Macquarie finally granted him a conditional pardon on 25 January 1813. His own business, Lawrence Butler Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, operated on Sydney’s Pitt Street from around 1810 until his death in 1820. His widow, Ann Butler, continued the business until her death in 1824, when it came under the control of the workshop manager, Miles Leary.

New South Wales Governor Phillip Gidley King commissioned this bookcase around 1805. As an accomplished cabinetmaker and one of the few in the colony known to be skilled in veneer work, Butler was permitted to undertake private commissions, necessary in the growing settlement, during his term and would have come to King’s notice after his arrival. The style of the bookcase is consistent with the late eighteenth-century design models seen in cabinetmaking pattern-books of the period. King most likely commissioned it not only as a practical item for his own use but also in the growing custom of early botanists sending or bringing fine furniture by local makers back to England as evidence of the quality of local woods and their possibilities for manufacture in the colony.

Phillip Gidley King (1758–1806) entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1770. In 1786, he was appointed a lieutenant of the Sirius, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, and was present at Sydney Cove at the foundation of the colony of New South Wales. In 1788, he formed the first settlement, on Norfolk Island, where he was Lieutenant Governor from 1791 to 1796. He returned from Britain to Sydney in 1800 as Governor of New South Wales but resigned this office in 1806, returning to England in 1807. He took the bookcase with him, and it remained in his family until acquired by the Gallery.

The functionality of this secretaire bookcase—the ability to store and use each section separately in the confines of a ship cabin—relates to the design of British transportable campaign furniture that was used by naval officers like King. The sections, constructed in Australian rosewood (for the sides) and cedar (for the carcass, shelves and drawer linings), are veneered on the front with Australian Casuarina (which was known as beefwood at the time), with the edges of drawer fronts made from black baleen (whalebone). The baleen was used in imitation of ebony and incorporated into the design to comply with British naval regulations that specified the use of black trim for official furniture in the period of official mourning of Admiral Nelson’s death in 1805.

I acknowledge the research on this object undertaken by furniture historian John Hawkins.

Robert Bell AM Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


in artonview, issue 72, Summer 2012/13

This secretaire bookcase is one of the most important pieces of Australian furniture, with its continuous family provenance, connection with a notable early governor, history of construction and use, and accomplished craftsmanship by Sydney convict cabinetmaker Lawrence Butler.

Butler worked as a cabinetmaker in the north of County Wexford, Ireland. He joined the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and was sentenced to transportation for life to New South Wales in 1799 for aiding the murder of a loyalist. On his arrival, he was assigned to work as a carpenter in the Sydney Lumber Yard until Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him a conditional pardon in 1813. His own business, Lawrence Butler Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, operated in Sydney from about 1810 until his death in 1820.

New South Wales Governor Phillip Gidley King commissioned the bookcase around 1805, most likely as evidence of the quality of local woods and their possibilities for manufacture in the colony. Constructed in Australian rosewood and cedar, the bookcase is veneered on the front with Australian casuarina, which was known as beefwood at the time, with cockbeading made from black whale baleen.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014