A member of the Berkshire Woodworkers Guild came to look at the T S Eliot desk a few days ago. I’d asked my neighbor Bob Norris, an avid woodworker, if he might be able  to help me identify the wood the desk was made from. He said he wasn’t expert enough but would find someone – and he did.

T S Eliot desk in Camberwell, London. Probably Spring 1990.*

I had thought for years that the desk must be made of pine – called “deal” in England – because that was used for inexpensive furniture. But even I could see that it wasn’t pine, and I didn’t think it was oak, which is quite heavy. Bob said it wasn’t something he felt confident about, but he kindly found a colleague, Ben Barrett, who offered to take a look.

It took him no time. He opened a drawer and said, “That’s mahogany.” We peered into drawers and looked at the underside. There were a few supports that were pine, and a plywood piece under the main drawer, but everything else is mahogany – dark, evenly grained, and surprising light. The desk is a pedestal-style and comes apart in 3 pieces, so it’s quite easy to move. It’s plain, but sturdy and functional.

Ben was, however, appalled by the paint. I explained that it wasn’t my idea. Valerie Eliot had painted it. That must have been after TSE’s death, as their nephew recalls the desk as brown. Valerie had it painted with flat wall paint in the chalky pale green she had everywhere in the flat. It was impossible to keep clean so I had it repainted in a traditional deep cyan, a blue-green, in semi-gloss. Now I feel guilty and think I’ll have to strip it back to the original wood.

Eliot bought the desk in a secondhand furniture store on the Tottenham Court Road in 1957, as I learned when I was working for Valerie and she showed me letters from that period soon after her marriage to the famous poet. We even know the date when it arrived from a letter quoted by Robert Crawford in After The Waste Land:

By 12 April they were ‘now at home’ in Kensington. Tom’s desk was delivered that afternoon. He typed a letter on it, hymning his wife (‘Of course Valerie is beautiful’)….”

From an article “How T S Eliot Wrote the Waste Land”:

When an interviewer said in 1959 that he’d heard that T S Eliot composed on the typewriter, he received a qualified reply. “Partly on the typewriter,” Eliot responded, and offered an insight into his recent play, The Elder Statesman, saying that it was initially produced in pencil on paper, before he transferred it to the machine. “In typing myself I make alterations,” he said, “very considerable ones.”

Mrs. Eliot gave me the desk in 1987 and I set it up in my writing corner in our basement flat in Camberwell. It was in a south London garage for a time, while I was briefly living in Boulder and then in Devon. In 1991, I moved to upstate New York, not far from where I live now. The desk, along with my books, was shipped to the New Jersey docks. The photo below shows it soon after that arrival, in the farmhouse in Philmont, New York, where I lived that first year. You can see the pale green color and how grubby it looked, but it did harmonize with the grass-green woodwork.

More about Valerie Eliot’s giving me the desk, and what came after, is part of Too Near the Flame. I recently wrote about the desk and the typewriter I bought in 2023 to use on it, as TSE had (though this is probably not the typewriter he had in Kensington, it is a typewriter model he used), at Karen’s Letter, “T S Eliot’s typewriter and desk.” 

I’ve realized several things about the desk in recent months. Most important, how little thought I gave to it once it was mine. I cared more about the beautiful wooden library shelves we carried up the Camberwell Grove from the library when they were replaced with adjustable metal shelves. My partner installed the shelves above the desk so I could write Home Ecology. The second thing I realized is that Valerie was, in her own way, trying to be supportive, and to keep me as an assistant. The third thing is that it is quite amazing to have something that belonged to and was used by T S Eliot, since most of his possessions – even his archive from Faber & Faber – are still in that flat in Kensington. I also remembered the day when Kirkpatrick Sale sat at the desk to write a blurb for the book I was by then, in Philmont, writing for Random Century. Had I told him that it was TSE’s desk? Is that why he flourished his note at me?

This photo shows the desk in Great Barrington, with 2 companions worth mentioning. The chair was Bill (William H.) McNeill’s writing chair at his home in Colebrook, Connecticut, given me after his death. And the clay pot behind it came from Sophia Mumford, a gift someone brought her husband Lewis Mumford. It’s a fine and beautiful museum piece and gives me a sense of the kind of pilgrim who came to see Mumford, or even to visit the house after his death. Sophie would let them in and wave them to the study, simply telling them not to disturb anything. These men were some of the great intellectuals and writers of the 20th century, and I wonder what they would think about meeting one another in this way.

This will be the BEFORE photo, when I restore it to the original mahogany.

* Although the desk held Wendell Berry and State of the World, for my environmental writing, I see that I had a postcard of TSE from the National Portrait Gallery pinned up.

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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