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. 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.
 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.
4 thoughts on “To an Oval Table”
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.
Dear Mr. Storb,
I have been admiring your blog for a while. I am very impressed with high quality of the photography in it. Do you mind sharing some of the technical details of your photographic work? Such things as camera, lenses, and any special lighting techniques would be helpful to me and, I am sure, to others following your blog. Thank you. Peter Pentz
The photographs used in this blog, only a very few were not made by me, are a real mixed bag, made with every type of camera from a full frame DSLR, a APS-C frame DLSR, various point and shoot cameras, iPhones, and prints and 35mm slides photographed with a digital camera. The conditions in which the photos were made are also varied, from a studio setting with a backdrop and several lights to snapshots made outside with a point-and-shoot or iPhone under harsh lighting conditions.
For the past 15 years or so, I have used digital photography for all woodwork related images. Almost all images go through Photoshop for anything from the slightest crop or adjustment to more complicated work removing distracting backgrounds or color temperature work.
A couple of general points. To remove distortion from furniture (or any object you’re photographing) you need to use a lens twice the “normal” length for any film system you are using. Many will remember hearing that a 50mm lens is the normal length fo 35mm film cameras. 50mm is the diagonal measurement of frame of 35mm film, this is where “normal” comes from. So you would want to use around a 100mm lens on a 35mm film camera o=r a full frame DSLR. The normal lens for a 4×5 camera is 150mm, the measurement of a piece of 4×5 film. With a 4×5 camera you would use a 300mm lens to remove distortion. Second, my preference for lighting is just my taste, there are many other ways to light, but I like to use one main light and an large fill. What I like about this is it gives furniture a sculptural appearance. This is an old way of lighting objects and many today take advantage of layers in Photoshop and might take 20, 30, or more images moving a light around a stationary object to eliminate any shadows, making every element of the object visible. So for what it’s worth, that’s not my taste.
If there are any specific photographs you are curious about, I’m pretty sure I can remember and comment on how it was made.
Thanks for the question and glad you are enjoying the photography!
Thank you for the detailed and helpful response. I will put it to use, see where it gets me, and pester you some more, later.