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.
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.
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.