A project from years ago was the restoration of this Philadelphia dressing table c. 1775 that had been significantly damaged and had undergone an extensive restoration in the past. The previous restoration, which included the creation of three new legs and their fluted corner columns, was well intended but the new parts did not match, in materials or workmanship, the other elements of the dressing table. The photographs above and below show the condition of the table when it was purchased at auction and as it arrived at my studio. The proper right rear leg was the only original leg. Fortunately the side of the knee of this leg was carved – I had the information needed to re-create the carving on missing legs.
The knee returns for the three missing legs were still in place, nailed to the case. The new legs were made of a wood light in weight and color with large, distinct pores. It has the appearance of Luan. It didn’t appear to be a species normally found the lumber trade but the dressing table had recently come from England and the previous restoration was likely done there. Their dark appearance is due to an opaque, nearly black coating.
Portions of the carved applique on the drawer were missing. The brass pulls were missing but the escutcheon on the long drawer survived and there were witness marks of the pierced pull plates on the drawer fronts. It didn’t appear that any subsequent pulls had ever been installed. The top, sides, and drawer fronts were without a film finish but there was a multi-layered finish on the drawer dividers, in crevices in the carving, and on much of the surviving leg. Other issues were a split in the lower front rail, an oval escutcheon plate nailed to the carved drawer (why?), and wood losses to the drawer edges and lower front rail.
There are losses on the carved drawer front that have left no witness mark. Glue residue and a color shift at the upper proper left corner marks a recent loss. The immigrant London trained carver who decorated this dressing table was prepared to produce carved work like that on the chest seen below, but in Philadelphia he was put to work carving shell drawers on high chests and dressing tables, forms passé in London by the mid-18th century. The full applique on this drawer front updates the baroque form of a Philadelphia dressing table with a bit of London rococo.
The original rear leg was broken and previously repaired just above the knee. Is this a clue as to why the three other legs were lost? Was there a catastrophic event that caused damage to all the legs at the same time, with three so badly damaged that were considered beyond repair or were broken off, becoming disassociated with the table before it was ultimately was deemed worthy of restoration?
A dark, accumulated finish survives on discontinuous areas of the dressing table, seen here in a detail of the carving on the original leg.
The original brass escutcheon has a small metal loss at the bottom. This complex, pierced design from a British foundry is rarely seen on American colonial furniture. The diamond and oval design in the center of the escutcheon echoes blind fret patterns seen on high chests and chests on chests made in Philadelphia from the mid-1760’s. This brass pattern may have been purposely selected to mirror the fret on the dressing table’s matching high chest.
The witness marks from the pull plates confirm the resolution of the design at the bottom of the escutcheon.
This would be multifaceted project. After the initial examination, research, joinery, and carving skills would be required. An ornate brass pattern would need to be reproduced if originals could not be located. Given the rarity of the pattern, even if found it was unlikely they could be pried loose at any price. We would want to preserve the accumulated coatings and create a similar effect on areas where it was missing and the on new wood. A formidable challenge, but the experience of the process and the knowledge acquired would be a considerable reward for the trouble.
3 thoughts on “Philadelphia Dressing Table Restoration, Part 1, First Look”
I look forward to seeing this, Chris.
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