To A Table

Earlier this month, a table that was part of the exhibition “Worldly Goods, the Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (October 1999 to January 2000), resurfaced at Brunk Auctions in Ashville, North Carolina. It was published in the catalogue of the “Worldly Goods” exhibition on page 144, figure 49. The description in the catalogue reads, “According to tradition, this dressing table belonged to Dr. Thomas Wynne, a prominent physician. It descended to Anthony Morris II, one of his patients, and subsequently through the Morris family.” No documentation is given for this assertion, however an engraved brass plaque screwed to the back rail of the table, present at the time of the exhibition and still in place, reads “Thomas Wynne, M.D./Secretary & Physician of William Penn/Speaker-Assembly/Died 1692.” It is unknown who had plaque engraved or when it was placed on the table.

Table. Made in the Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia, c. 1730. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass hardware.

When the table was photographed for the exhibition catalogue it was missing its front stretcher. It has a restored stretcher in the Brunk Auction catalogue images. I made and installed a new front stretcher while working in the Conservation department at the PMA in the months leading up to the opening of the exhibition. I copied the design of the two other stretchers present on the table. I removed modern patches from the mortises in the front legs made for the original stretcher and inserted floating tenons. I cut slots in the bottoms of the end blocks on my new stretcher and slid the stretcher over the floating tenons. It was a satisfying, reversible repair – there was no need to disassemble table and the new stretcher could be easily removed if desired.  

I was struck upon seeing the table again by the similarity of its turnings to an oval table first attributed to the Philadelphia joiner John Head (1688-1754) in 2019. I wrote about the table here.  John Head developed a novel way of marking drawer parts for identification during construction, he made use of series of specifically placed white chalk slashes and swirls. I consider these marks a distinctive, individual characteristic of Head’s case furniture and I do not attribute objects without them to his shop and cannot at this time attribute this table to Head’s shop. The new owner of the table sold at Brunk Auctions tells me there are no chalk marks visible of the exterior of the drawer sides and back. In the future when I can safely resume doing research in person, I look forward to closely examining the table though I believe finding evidence of Head’s chalk marks is likely a long shot. Once the chalk cross-links with the surface of the wood it becomes difficult to remove them without abrading the surface of the wood. 

In the early eighteenth century, Delaware River Valley turners working 2 to 2 ½ inch legs made use of a fairly limited number of shapes – balusters, rings, reels, coves, and filets. Some turners used ogees to transition between elements, though none are present in these two tables. Additionally, convex elements could have one or more incised lines turned at their greatest diameter. Turners developed their own profiles for these elements.

On the leg of the oval table attributed to John Head, seen in the right in the above image, the baluster has a long neck whose sides are almost parallel. A ring with no filets is placed slightly above the center of the neck. The base of the baluster is round, almost a ball. Below the baluster, reels are turned on either side of a ring. Under this is a short reverse baluster with the same characteristics of parallel neck sides and a ball shaped termination. These profiles are repeated and handled the same way on the stretchers, the swing legs, and the feet, though the rings on the necks of the balusters are absent on all the horizontally oriented balusters as well as the reverse balusters of the legs. There are single incised lines on the reverse balusters, the ball turnings of the stretchers, and the feet. On the Brunk Auctions table seen on the left, the forms are arranged in an identical manner and the profiles of the elements are similar – parallel baluster necks with rings with no filets and ball shaped baluster terminations. There are however no incised lines turned on the Brunk Auctions table.

The secondary wood species is the same in both tables and a there is a common approach in drawer construction. The drawer on the right side of the image is from the oval table attributed to John Head. 

Saw kerfs continue across the interior of the drawer fronts of both drawers. Not all Delaware River Valley joiners ran their saw kerfs past the scribe lines on drawer front interiors as shown here but this technique was common enough that it alone cannot be used to attribute furniture to Head. Notice that in the drawer on the right from the oval table attributed to the shop of John Head the top of the drawer side is square and level with the drawer front while the sides of the Brunk Auctions table are rounded and slightly stepped-down from the front. Head adopted stepped-down, rounded drawer sides by the 1730s.

One last tantalizing detail. The front rail of the Brunk table relates closely to a profile seen on furniture attributed to the shop of John Head.

Above is a dressing table attributed to Head in the collection of there Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A similar profile is present on the feet and base moulding of a spice box and clock case attributed to Head.

The profile also appears in the valances of a desk attributed to Head.

While the Brunk Auction table cannot be confidently attributed to John Head at the present time, it would harmonize pleasingly with other objects made in Philadelphia in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

4 thoughts on “To A Table

  1. Interesting, nice job on stretcher reconstruction/repair as well.
    I was struck by the drawer construction details in this and links to other posts on drawer construction. I have a splay leg table with a drawer that has similar construction EXCEPT, the drawer sides of mine are rabbeted and the drawer bottom is visible only from the back.

    • Thank you for your comment on the stretcher!
      Yes, there are a many ways of constructing a drawer and the rabbeted drawer bottom is a more elegant solution than the drawers shown here. In England in the 1730 this type of construction, bottoms nailed up to the sides, would be considered “carpenter’s work”.

  2. Dear Chris,

    Congratulations on relating the construction of the “Wynne” table at Brunk’s to the Head shop oval table discussed in your earlier post. As always, your deductions and reasoning are as tight as a John Head dovetail!

    Tentatively attributing the two tables in part on their similar turnings is further supported by entries in Head’s account book showing that his shop did most of its own turning. See, The Cabinetmaker’s Account, 136.

    I appreciate your caution in withholding unqualified attribution without first personally examining the table for evidence of Head’s singular chalk face marks. Not being able to discern such marks on an oval table with similar turnings, I qualified its attribution as “possibly by the shop of John Head.” Id., fig. 18.1. I later felt comfortable in attributing it to Head’s shop after your analysis of the oval table with many of the same elements and the marks. As our universe of his turned pieces expands, firmer attributions will become possible.

    I can offer one possible explanation of how the table came to be associated with Dr. Thomas Wynne. His death in 1692 makes it impossible for him to have been the first owner of a table by the shop of John Head, who did not arrive in Philadelphia until 1717. It may have been passed down in the Wynne family and associated with the wrong ancestor. Wynne’s great-grandson James Wynne (1736—1817) married Rebecca Steele (1746—1827), the granddaughter of James Steele (c. 1671—1742), Head’s best customer who purchased several tables from him. Id., 41, 198 n.26.

    Based on their descriptions, one of two of those tables may be this one. Head debited Steele a pound for “a squar walnut Table,” a unique order, on the 13th day of the 12th month 1735 (February 13, 1736). That could describe the “Wynne” table, presuming that the original top was rectangular as is its present replacement top. The other possible candidate is “a frame for a slat[e] Table,” for which Head charged Steele 15 shillings, on the 11th day of the 1st month 1724 (March 11, 1725). Id., 196, 198 n. 39. When you examine the frame, please see if there is any evidence of it once supporting a slab top, such as additional or stronger blocking. Perhaps the unusual extra stretcher was meant to support the additional weight of a stone top.

    Also, I am curious as to whether there are any witness marks on the front apron for moldings such as those on the dressing table from the Met which we each illustrated. Id., fig. 17.17.

    I am looking forward to a subsequent post in which you can discuss your personal examination.

    Jay

    P.S.: I am also asking the American Philosophical Society to update the link to your blog on its John Head website, https://www.amphilsoc.org/publications/cabinetmakers-account-john-heads-record-craft-commerce-colonial-philadelphia-1718-1753.

    • Jay,

      Thank you for your comments. That the Wynne and Steele families are connected is a wonderful insight and possible corroboration for a tentative attribution in the future knowing that James Steele purchased tables from Head. If this is a table from Head’s shop purchased by Steele, I favor the 1£ square walnut table ordered in 1735/6 as I date the table to the 1730s.

      It is an unusual form, the stretcher arrangement, not often seen in America but known in Britain. The front legs need a front stretcher for structural purposes. As I believe this is not a “dressing table” as the Worldly Goods catalogue would have it, but more of a side or pier table, the high stretcher would be more appropriate at the front than the low stretcher seen at the rear legs, you could more easily stand in front of the table to access the drawer, etc. I’m certain a later owner desired to use it seated in a chair. The front stretcher is clearly an obstruction when using the table this way. A saw made quick work of removing the stretcher.

      I will be checking for evidence of mouldings at the drawer surround but don’t expect to find any for several reasons I’ll discuss this in a future post about the table.

      I am standing firm for now in not making an attribution, but I will add that I have not seen another object more reminiscent of the oval table attributed to John Head than this one.

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