To an Oval Table

Last summer we had the chance to examine the first oval table that can be attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). According to entries in his account book, John Head sold approximately fifty-five oval tables between 1720 and 1737.  Prices ranged from £0-18-0 for a pine table to £3-0-0, of which six were debited. Head debited the greatest number of oval tables, fifteen, at £2-5-0.  Until July 2019, no oval tables that could be attributed to Head’s workshop had been located.  This was surprising as oval tables made in the Delaware River Valley in the first part of the 18th century, made by numerous unidentified joiners, survive in great numbers.

The overwhelming majority of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture is anonymous.  Nearly all objects are unsigned by the maker or have had no other form of labeling applied.  Furniture is “movable”; therefore, objects can seldom be traced indisputably to either an invoice or an entry in an account book of a maker. In fact, most pieces of historic furniture have no reliable provenance that reaches any further back then several generations of family history, an earlier collector, or a dealer who handled it.

Much historic furniture survives, as do the names of many joiners working in the trade. It has perhaps been unavoidable that over the last century, attribution of furniture to a maker has been a specific pursuit of many furniture historians.  Unfortunately, in the field of furniture studies, attributing an object to a specific maker tends to be an imprecise pursuit. There is not a generally agreed to criterion or rigorously applied set of standards for what constitutes an adequate and acceptable attribution.  Attributions are often made without a clear statement from an author about the criteria used to make an attribution.

John Head developed a novel way of marking drawer parts for identification during construction, he made use of a series of specifically placed white chalk slashes and swirls. A detailed description of Head’s drawer-part marking system can be found here. This marking system has not been found on any other documented cabinetmaker’s work or on any objects from an undocumented maker with features significantly different from Head’s work. As such they can be considered distinctive individual characteristics, permitting objects that use this drawer marking system to be attributed to the workshop of John Head. This marking system is found on the Wistar family high chest and dressing table documented to the Head shop through account book entries that corroborate other documentation, including family tradition.[1]   http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=910

I thank Alan Anderson for directing me to the table after he observed the chalk markings on the drawers and the tables current owner for allowing me to examine, photograph, and publish our findings.

Photographs with captions follow.

[1] Michael Moses used the terminology “distinctive individual characteristics” and articulated a similar system of attribution in his work Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and the Goddards, Russack and Loto Books, LLC, 1984.

1

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass.

2

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. With leaves open. The top is original to the base frame.

3

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Distinctive chalk shop marks on the proper left sides and backs of the two drawers.

4

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass. Chalk shop marks on the backs of the two drawers.

5

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. The proper right sides and backs of the drawers.

6

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Detail of a leg.

7

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Lower side stretchers.

8

val table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass.

9

val table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Detail of a foot.

10

val table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Detail of ball and reel turning on the lower stretcher.

11

val table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. The frame with the top removed. The side top rails are made of white oak.

12

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. The center drawer runner is hard pine. It is dovetailed to the drawer rail at either end of the table.

17

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Detail of a drawer side.

14

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. The drawer bottoms are made from Atlantic white cedar and nailed on at the front, sides, and back.

17

Oval table. Made in Philadelphia. Attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). 1720-1737. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, white oak, brass. Interior surface of a drawer front.

One thought on “To an Oval Table

  1. Dear Chris,

    Thanks for posting a discussion and photographs of this oval table. I concur that its distinctive chalk face marks permit attribution to John Head’s shop, given that its other attributes are consistent with his designs and construction.

    Last year, Alan Andersen was kind enough to also bring the markings on that table to my attention. Sadly, that was not before publication of The Cabinetmaker’s Account. Had I earlier known of his discovery, I could have more firmly attributed the diminutive oval table which I had illustrated (Figure 18.1). Although the latter bore many design and construction characteristics associated with Head’s shop, because it lacked the chalk face marks I only went as far as describing it as “possibly by the shop of John Head.”

    I invite your readers to compare the two tables. Although scaled to the smaller dimensions of the illustrated table, the turnings, apron design, and drawer construction are like those of the table discussed in your blog. With Alan’s and your definitive attribution of the marked table, I now feel comfortable in attributing the unmarked to the shop of John Head without reservation. The John Head Project continues…!

    I also wish to thank the private owners of these tables for permitting them to be illustrated and discussed.

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