Federal Carved Mahogany Pembroke Table
This table has been attributed to Duncan Phyfe based on similarities between it and other examples, most notably a four-post pedestal side table of nearly identical design in Furniture Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe (1922), Charles Cornelius’s authoritative book.1Cornelius, pl. xxxvii. The finish is probably original.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous decorative element in Phyfe’s work is the acanthus leaf seen here on the upper side of the curved legs and the vase-shaped portion of the four legs. Typically, the acanthus is combined with such details as the delicate reeding that starts at the base of the acanthus leaf and continues down the leg to the foot. Cornelius notes that Phyfe’s wood-carving technique simplifies the acanthus of classical decoration into a series of rounded grooves and ridges.2Ibid., 53. Cornelius further states, p. 54, that “this acanthus . . . is very different from that found in design books, on Adam furniture or on . . . French earlier eighteenth-century furniture. . . . It partakes much more of the Directoire feeling which was no doubt affected by the flatness of the popular water-leaf ornament of Egyptian and Greek suggestion.”
Common decorative features on Phyfe-attributed tables are straight fluting, seen here on the edge of the platform, and whorled fluting, used on the bulbous section of the columns below the vase. These whorls animate the table, moving the eye from the base up toward the double elliptical top, which is devoid of carving but elegant in shape and in surface color.
Since Cornelius published his work on Phyfe in 1922, many documented examples of New York—made furniture in Phyfe’s style but not made by him have been identified. Moses and Stephen Young, for example, made a labeled table now in the Department of State that is very similar to one pictured in Cornelius (Acc. No. 67.55).3See Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 143 (Acc. No. 67.55). Furthermore, several examples of furniture labeled by Michael Allison cast doubt on past Phyfe attributions. Research has revealed that certain carvers and specialized journeymen provided piecework for several New York shops, and that cabinetmakers in the major East Coast cities had access to price books such as The New-York Revised Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work (1810), among other titles.4Cooper 1980, 261–63. Lacking a labeled card table matching this one, it should be attributed more conservatively to that group of New York City cabinetmakers with the same decorative vocabulary as Phyfe’s.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.