In this rococo masterpiece, the carver’s art and the cabinetmaker’s sense of proportion and sure handling of line create a graceful platform for the tea ceremony, a central part of daily life in upper-class colonial America. The table rises from the floor in a series of graceful reverse curves that lead the eye to the small tabletop, where the expensive imported tea and its attendant wares of china and silver could be displayed in an exalted fashion that heightens and emphasizes their importance. The table is supported by cabriole legs that terminate in delicate, crisply carved claw-and-ball feet. The knees are embellished with tripartite carved shells with three pendant husks below, in a hand that is seen on other Philadelphia work of this period, and the carver’s skill is also evident in the pendant carved shells found in the center of the rails. The rails are skillfully shaped to curve inward, forming in essence a large coved section that lifts up and dramatizes the tabletop, creating an altarlike effect.1For references to objects with similar carving, see Ward 1988a, cat. no. 112. Despite a rectangular shape, such tables were often referred to as “square” tea tables in the mid eighteenth century, and they are a rare form in Philadelphia.
Like much eighteenth-century Anglo-American furniture, the ultimate source for this table’s elegant form lies in Asian furniture from China and Japan.2See Kirk 1982, nos. 1267–1357, for a large group of related tables; see esp. no. 1273 (a seventeenth-century Japanese table derived from sixteenth-century Chinese prototypes). Closer prototypes, as with much Philadelphia rococo-style furniture, can be found in the style and manner of Irish furniture of the period, perhaps due to the presence of Irish examples imported into the city or to the work of Irish-trained immigrant craftsmen.3Jack Lindsey, Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680–1758 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999), 151–52. For related Irish work, see Gerald A. Kenyon, The Collection of Irish Furniture at Malahide Castle (Dublin: By the author, 1994), and the Knight of Glin, Irish Furniture (Dublin: Eason & Son, 1978). Research by Luke Beckerdite suggests that this table is part of a group of objects that may have been carved by Samuel Harding (d. 1758) and others in his shop.4Luke Beckerdite, “An Identity Crisis: Philadelphia and Baltimore Furniture Styles of the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” in Catherine E. Hutchins, ed., Shaping a National Identity: The Philadelphia Experience, 1750–1800 (Winterthur, Del. Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1994), 243–81; fig. 27. For a similar table attributed to a different hand, see Philadelphia: Three Centuries, cat. no. 101.
Gerald W. R. Ward
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.