Jay’s comment in the previous post described a unique debit entry in James Steele’s account with the joiner John Head on 12/13/1735, “To a Square walnut Table – £1-0-0.” Jay suggested that if Head made the Brunk Auction table it may be this entry, or alternatively it might be the “frame for a slat Table” Head debited to Steele on 1/11/1724.
Since we have yet to document the table to Head’s shop, we risk getting ahead of ourselves, but I’ll add my comments to Jay’s. A “square walnut table” is exactly the appropriate title for the table featured in the last post – if indeed it did not originally have a slate top. In the “Worldly Goods” exhibition catalogue the Brunk Auction table was described as a “Dressing table, c. 1700-1720” and was included in the section of “case furniture” rather than the “tables and stands” section. But there is no reason to think this form is anything but a sideboard table, a common feature of British dining rooms since the Restoration. The courtly version, today called a “Triad” was the suite of table, stands, and a looking glass placed on a pier between windows or against a long wall. Provincial joiners, including those in the Delaware River Valley, made their own, less opulent versions, eliminating the stands, and often the looking glass as well. The table could serve multiple functions and might be moved to different rooms in the house. It could be used for food and drink service, a spice box or bible could be set on top, or chairs could be placed at the ends, transforming it into an impromptu desk. In the last quarter of the 17th century and the first of the 18th, a single drawer, as seen in this table, was a consistent feature.
If there were originally a slate top, the table would be used in the same manner, as a sideboard, or a table for display of worldly goods. To Jay’s point about examining the table for evidence that there might be construction features that would have helped support the weight of a slate top, I would first look to see if there were bored holes in the tops of the legs for pegs that would have attached a wood top. If the current top cannot be removed, x-radiographs would provide this evidence. There are approximately a dozen tables and frames made in Boston in the first half of the 18th century with slate tops in an imported wood surround. None of the ones I’ve examined have bases that are modified in any way to take the extra weight. In fact, these tables are the most fragile and exacting objects to deal with. The Brunk Auction table could easily handle a slate top and do it more robustly than any of the Boston tables. I don’t expect we will find evidence any modification for support of a heavy slate or stone top.
“Square”, used in the 18th century to describe tables, can be misleading to those unfamiliar in the use of the term. It did not describe the shape of the top. Instead, it refers to the right angle of the corners, they are “in square”, referring to the joiners try-square, an essential woodworking tool. The term “square top” or “square table” distinguishes the table from one with a “round top”. 18th century tables with tops that are the same dimension in width and depth – square – are exceedingly rare, nearly all “square” tables have rectangular tops.
If you went looking for related tables after reading the last post, especially with an eye for the unusual stretcher placement, you would have been in for a surprise. There are abundant examples of this form of joiners table found in Britain and dozens in the American colonies, mostly made in New England, primarily Boston, but all published examples that I am aware of with a high stretcher at the front legs have a corresponding high stretcher at the back. An H-stretcher at the bottom typically completes the joinery of the frame.
With a high stretcher spanning the front legs and a low stretcher at the same level as the H-stretcher at the back of the frame, the Brunk Auction table may be a unique design. This unusual design approach to what was a standardized form, necessitates two different leg patterns. It is unexpected, unfamiliar, and also – to date – not found on another contemporary turned table frame. (I would be happy to see a similar table if a reader comes across one). The question then is why? Four identical legs with high stretchers front and back would have made a perfectly fine table, particularly given the attention to the design of the profiles and the execution of the turning. There is nothing structurally to be gained by this unusual stretcher placement. Is it purely a design consideration? Could the rear legs have been destined for an oval able commission that didn’t happen? Or did the maker desire a more complex baluster-turned design for rear legs? Joined Delaware River Valley joined chairs, which were plentiful in and around Philadelphia at this time might have provided an inspiration.
I’m enjoying the mystery of this table but am still thinking.