A Maryland Chippendale Tea Table, by Process of Elimination
“Perhaps no single piece of American cabinetware of the Georgian period is so universally admired, so eagerly sought after by collectors . . . as a tripod tea table fabricated of rich grained wood, skillfully elaborated with a scalloped top cut from an individual part of solid crotch mahogany, ball and claw feet, and . . . various ornamentations on the pedestal and legs.” – William McPherson Hornor, Jr. (courtesy of Sarah Neale Fayen)
In the fall of 2019 this American mahogany tea table came up for sale at a regional New England auction house. While scrolling through its’ online catalogue images, and despite its’ close resemblance to Philadelphia examples, I was immediately reminded of the Maryland attributed mahogany piecrust tea table in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art (see below). There were enough differences between the two that it was doubtful both were from the same shop. Their commonality, however, was that while both were products of unabashed efforts to emulate the finest Philadelphia traditions, each projected enough provincial identity to comfortably place their origin outside the City.
The BMA’s piecrust table, originally attributed to Maryland in 1968, in Maryland Queen Anne and Chippendale Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, was later attributed to Maryland or Pennsylvania in American Furniture 1680-1880, published in 1986. Having originally been associated with Joseph Kindig, Jr., who found it in Frederick, Maryland, it (or an identical table) was later determined to have been sold at Park-Bernet Galleries in 1950. The table (or an identical table) was also published in Israel Sack’s Fine Points of Furniture in 1960.
This walnut table (see below), attributed to Frederick, Maryland, is one of but a handful of fully executed Chippendale tilt-top tea tables attributed to the state.
When there is not much to talk about, not much can be said. In the annals of American furniture studies, Chippendale tilt-top tea tables made in Colonial Maryland have not only been neglected, they have been outright dismissed. Sarah Neale Fayen’s Chipstone article, Tilt-Top Tables and Eighteenth-Century Consumerism, while acknowledging the use of these “ubiquitous fixtures” throughout the Colonies, neglects to cite a single example from Maryland. The reasons behind this were numerous, but all contributed to the marked scarcity of this Maryland rococo aesthetic. The absence of documented examples has always made attribution difficult. Suffice it to say, the challenge lies not so much in identifying what definitively makes this a Maryland table, but rather, in recognizing those factors that eliminate this table from being the product of a premier Philadelphia shop.
The first step in researching the table was to pour over every source available in an attempt to find other examples with similar characteristics. While the beautifully carved top, legs, and feet were all significant, the distinctive profile of the turned pillar seemed the most promising indication toward finding a like example. It was during a final perusal of Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury that I happened upon, not a recognizable pillar profile, but an image of a very familiar piecrust top that was in its’ tilted position, thus covering said pillar. It was indeed the same table! Unlike virtually every other piecrust top I had encountered, the alternating curved and scalloped arcs comprising the top edge are of nearly identical widths. In most examples, from Philadelphia to Charleston, the curved arcs are almost always significantly narrower than the scalloped arcs, often to the extent of appearing as straight edged crenelations (see below).
Nutting’s accompanying description noted how this “Philadelphia” tea table was from the collection of H. W. Erving (1851-1941) of Hartford, Connecticut. Henry Wood Erving was a pioneer collector and authority on American furniture. He was a member of the Walpole Society, a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author of Random Notes on Colonial Furniture (1922), and is credited with discovering and naming the “Hadley” chest. Over one hundred items from his collection were included in Furniture Treasury as well as Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America. While his collection consisted primarily of New England antiques, it did include the occasional Southern piece. Nutting’s entry 1080, described as “New England Origin”, was also from Erving’s collection (see below). Eventually determined to be an Annapolis table attributed to John Shaw, it sold at Sotheby’s in 2007. The auction catalogue notes Erving’s collection number painted on the Shaw table as 229. A Connecticut high chest of drawers also owned by Erving and inscribed with the number 27 sold at the same sale. Accordingly, the collection number 206 is painted on the underside of this tea table near its’ brass latch.
In determining which characteristics and factors indicate this tea table was not made in Philadelphia, one must acknowledge that generalizations are exactly that. There will always be exceptions and alternative opinions. Likewise, there is no singular “smoking gun” supporting the reasoning that this table was probably made in Maryland. Instead, it is the combining and weighing of multiple observations and considerations that culminate in the founded conclusion. There is little question that the maker was well acquainted with Philadelphia versions of the same form. The highly figured, single-board, scalloped mahogany top and well executed ball and claw feet are in keeping with the City’s finest shops. There are, however, four distinguishable features that belie a Philadelphia origin.
1. The ball and column pillar is far enough off the mark that it suggests a deliberate effort by the turner to create a more individual, albeit less successful profile than the Philadelphia archetype. The ball itself is more spherical than compressed, and its’ medial ring is incised below the ball’s surface rather than being convex. The stouter column is considerably less tapered, and placement of its’ capitals and/or rings appears more random compared to its’ Philadelphia counterparts (see below).
While the ball and column pillar might simply be a less than accurate emulation of the Philadelphia paradigm, as seen on countless Pennsylvania examples, it likely represents a decisive mirroring of English design. The columnar component of this Virginia table (see below), more Georgian in style than many of its’ English counterparts, has a strikingly similar profile.
2. A more subtle distinction is the molded ovolo upper edge on the bottom plate of the birdcage. While this embellishment might seem in keeping with a highly carved table, it is actually rarely employed on American examples, and when so, usually in exurban areas and with no regional proclivity. This shaping of the birdcage is not apparent on any well attributed Philadelphia piecrust tables, least of all the profusely carved rococo masterpieces. All have either a simple bullnose or straight edge (see below).
3. The shoulder steps where the legs join the pedestal are markedly deeper than on Philadelphia examples, many of those having no discernible ledge but essentially just a quarter-round transition. A similarly deep ledge is apparent on the BMA Maryland attributed table cited earlier (see below).
4) All three feet are composed with symmetrically applied side laminations. Each 5/8″ wide, they allowed the maker to carve broader, more appropriately proportioned Philadelphia style ball and claw feet (see below). There are other rare instances of originally laminated feet, including documented examples from the famous Cadwalader “hairy-paw” suite, the seams well camouflaged by the carved “hair”. However, when limited, most makers elected to work with what they had, carving the narrower, more “rat paw” like feet seen on many rural and even English-influenced urban examples. The salient point regarding this table is that the same maker who had access to one of the finest single board mahogany tops available, either did not have access to sufficiently thick mahogany, or was unwilling to reduce wider leg stock down while allowing for a broader foot. In that the vast majority of table makers did exactly that, inadequate supply is probably the more likely scenario. It seems more plausible for that situation to have occurred in a secondary urban center like Baltimore Town, more susceptible to inconsistent supply, than the Colonies’ most populated and leading commercial city, 1770 Philadelphia.
If willing to concede that the Erving “Philadelphia” table is likely not a product of Philadelphia, the next step is to determine whether it can be attributed to Maryland, probably Baltimore or Annapolis, or another more rural Philadelphia-influenced origin. While provincial versions of Philadelphia ball and column pillars are evident from Chester County, Lancaster, Delaware, and even the Valley of Virginia, the fact that this table incorporates such a fine quality mahogany top essentially precludes a rural origin. A country-made table with a single-board piecrust top, together with well executed leg carving, would be rare enough, but in conjunction with the use of imported mahogany rather than local walnut would be almost unheard of. Based on its’ proximity, Delaware is certainly a possibility. Cabinetmaker John Janvier of Elkton, Maryland, who relocated to Odessa, Delaware in 1777, advertised on his label, “tea tables………..equal in neatness and strength to Philadelphia work”. However, very few mahogany examples attributed to Delaware towns exist. The Sewell C. Biggs Collection includes two mahogany armchairs and one candlestand but no tea tables. All three are tentatively attributed to either Odessa (Janvier) or Dover. Much of the furniture attributed to Delaware is made of walnut and often indistinguishable from nearby Philadelphia but for provenance.
In her book Maryland Furniture, 1740-1940, Gregory Weidman refutes the misconception that Baltimore did not prove to be a commercial source of furniture until after the Revolution. In 1770 there were two “principal” cabinetmakers in Baltimore, Gerrard Hopkins and Robert Moore. Both Philadelphia trained, Hopkins set up shop “at the sign of the Tea Table and chair” in 1767. His past employer, Moore, followed suit four years later. Furniture attributable to either is slim, but a labeled Hopkins mahogany high chest has led to the attribution of at least two armchairs, a set of six side chairs at the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, and several dressing tables. William Elder notes, “The single known labelled high chest by Gerrard Hopkins proves that, given the client, a Baltimore cabinetmaker could produce a high chest in the grand Philadelphia style, but there are certain characteristics specifically related to Chesapeake furniture of Maryland provenance”. Gerard Hopkins was a native Marylander, born and raised in Anne Arundel County. Coming from a well-to-do family, he was undoubtedly exposed to the English and Anglo-American furniture styles prevalent south of Philadelphia, especially in and around Annapolis. Baltimore was both geographically and stylistically between the two.
Luke Beckerdite points out in his 1986 MESDA Journal article, A Problem of Identification: Philadelphia and Baltimore Furniture Styles in the Eighteenth Century, “all of the details which have been considered hallmarks of Maryland work occur with equal frequency on Philadelphia pieces in the late Baroque and Rococo styles”. Ironically, his observation both bolsters and questions the reliability of those hallmarks. Scholars William Elder and Gregory Weidman stipulated that their combined deduced stylistic characteristics were features indicative of potential Maryland furniture, not unique to it. After all, what better way to confirm Maryland’s emulation of Philadelphia style than to systematically list the commonalities between the two. In the end though, it is not so much the employment of those individual characteristics themselves, so much as how they are used in concert with one another and most importantly, with other non-Philadelphia, more English inspired attributes.
In his earlier 1982 MESDA Journal treatise, William Buckland Reconsidered: Architectural Carving in Chesapeake Maryland, 1771-1774, Beckerdite attributes the joinery and carving for the James Brice House in Annapolis to Gerrard Hopkins and William Bampton respectively. The author notes “The carved shells on the (Hopkins labeled) high chest are virtually identical to that on the chimneypiece in the large northwest room…..”. Bampton was the only carver listed in Brice’s ledger, kept during construction between 1767 and 1774. Beckerdite surmises that, “Although the chimneypiece in the northwest room could have been purchased from Hopkins and shipped from Baltimore to Annapolis, it is also possible that Bampton was employed by Hopkins either before or after his work in the Brice House.”. He also attributes the Brice House’s carved leaf mantel consoles to William Bampton (see below).
Beckerdite notes that the Brice House chimneypiece is based on plates 50 and 51 of Abraham Swan’s British Architect. However, neither drawing includes the taller carved leaf consoles actually flanking the outside of the fireplace surround rather than installed above it. The implication being, the side brackets were the result of design liberty taken by the architect or Hopkins, embellished by artistic license taken by carver Bampton. In any event, it is unlikely that they were based on published drawings and thus used by any other craftsmen.
The carving on the Brice House consoles is strikingly similar to that on the Erving table’s legs (see below). The styles of the paired, double acanthus leaves, plain over fiddle-head, are very similar but for the inclusion of the two crescents in the console’s larger field. Both compositions have identical formats, from the top: initial leaf carving above one pair of acanthus leaves (plain over fiddlehead), then spacing, then one pair of leaves, then spacing, then one pair of leaves, then spacing, then one pair of leaves, then spacing, then terminating in a splayed leaf array. Each example also includes a similar method of carving a flared terminus at the end of each full depth groove. When one takes into account the differences in size, shape, contour, and wood species of the two carved surfaces, it is reasonable to conclude that both might well be by the same hand. The discernible differences are certainly commensurate with those between the cited high chest and mantel carving, especially regarding the detail and embellishment of each shell’s encompassing streamers (see previous). In both comparisons, the carvings of the architectural examples are more fully executed than their mahogany counterparts.
The final attribution as to the the origin of this Chippendale tea table can only be an educated guess, perhaps with a bit of biased optimism thrown in. Simply put, the table is overly provincial to be from downtown Philadelphia. It is too sophisticated, including being made of top quality mahogany, to likely be from any rural area. I personally have yet to see a finer scalloped one-board top. It was almost certainly made in an urban area. It is not Georgian enough to be from Williamsburg, Fredericksburg as cited earlier, or Charleston. It is also too Philadelphian in style to be from Norfolk or the South. Tea tables were popular throughout the Colonies, including Maryland, as cited by Sarah Neale Fayen. It might be from Annapolis, but once again, inordinately Philadelphian looking to be a product of the most British influenced city in America. Baltimore’s only possible makers, Philadelphia trained Gerrard Hopkins and Robert Moore, both had tea tables painted on their trade signs. All of the furniture labeled by and attributed to Hopkins is made of mahogany. The carving looks intriguingly similar to William Bampton’s at the Brice House. The certain je ne sais quoi regarding the final analysis is that this table successfully deviates from being the Philadelphia representation it is based on, to the same degree, and in its’ own way, as does every other example of Hopkins’s work. So, in the end, there is as good a chance as any that this table was made in Baltimore, at the shop of either Gerrard Hopkins or Robert Moore, and carved by William Bamptom, or someone very familiar with his style and work, right around 1770.