The broad sweep of the double-peak serpentine front rail, repeated in smaller scale on the corners and turned into a half-serpentine on the sides, distinguishes this superb side table. In form, it is unique in colonial New York furniture, yet it shares many similarities with the better-known serpentine card tables, often considered the highest achievement of New York cabinetmakers during the colonial period.
Morrison H. Heckscher divided the New York card tables by construction and carving into two main groups.Heckscher 1973, 974–83.1 The Collection’s side table shares characteristics of both. In its carving and solid mahogany rails, it closely parallels the first group. There are even the same type of recessed niches for the screws that held the original wooden top in place, the current marble top being a later replacement.The present marble top was made by Walter Macomber the architect of several of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and the architect in charge of moving “The Lindens” to Washington, D.C. 2 The shallower serpentine curves, rectangular interior construction, and quarter-round corner blocks, however, associate the table with the second group. Only the shell carving on the knees seems curiously out-of-date, although it may have been carved in order to match existing furniture.
Side or slab tables, as those with marble tops were called, were relatively popular in colonial New York. They are listed in many inventories and wills. Surviving examples are usually rectangular in shape; the serpentine is more common in Philadelphia furniture. Only one other example is known from New York, a marble-top table with a unique wooden shelf across the back, said to have descended in the Van Rensselaer family.“Shop Talk,” Antiques 58, no. 1 (July 1950), 18–22. 3 It, too, resembles the New York card tables of the second group.
The cabriole-leg side table appears frequently in English and Irish furniture of the first half of the 18th century, but by the 1760s it may have been old-fashioned. In his third edition, Chippendale illustrates seven different variations of what he terms “Side Board Tables,” all with straight, Marlborough legs.
Gilbert Tapley Vincent and Joseph T. Butler
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.