Portrait of Henry Clay, 9th Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams
Washingtonian Benjamin Henry Tayloe (d. 1868) was one of the many who attended the sale of the personal effects of Henry Clay when he moved out of the Decatur House in 1829. In Tayloe’s reminiscences, he recounts this experience: “His furniture was handsome. At his sale of it, on his retirement from office, in 1830 [sic] I bought, as a reminiscence, the center-table and card-tables of the drawing room.”1In Memoriam: Benjamin Ogle Tayloe (Washington: Published privately, 1872; printed by Sherman and Co., Philadelphia), 164.
The Henry Clay Papers further document the sale: “Sold on account, Henry Clay, Esquire, by P. Mauro and Son, Auctionary, Washington City, February 27, 1829.” 2 The Henry Clay Papers, Library of Congress, v. 14.
Pair of card tables………..$59.00
Pair of card tables………..$40.00
One of these card tables is now in the Collection of the Department of State and documents the taste of one of the most famous secretaries of state, Henry Clay, who served in that position from 1827 to 1829. He was one of three secretaries of state to live in the home built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for Stephen Decatur, U.S. Naval Commissioner under James Monroe. The other two were Martin Van Buren and Edward Livingston.
An important statesman and famous orator, Clay served as U.S. Senator and Speaker of the House, and was a three-time presidential candidate. He lived most of his life in Lexington, Kentucky. His house, Ashland, built in 1809, was torn down in 1857 to make way for a second house built by his son James Clay. During his frequent stays in Washington, Clay lived first in a house only a few blocks from Decatur House. Some of the furniture used there must surely have made its way to his new residence on Lafayette Square.
The form of Clay’s card table, a so-called “trick leg” table on which the two rear legs swing back to support the open top, has been associated with the preeminent New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe since the publication of Charles Over Cornelius’s Furniture Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe in 1922.3See Cornelius. Another early Phyfe scholar, Nancy McClelland, illustrated a number of related examples in Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency, 1795–1830, such as a satinwood card table with brass edging and a console.4McClelland, pls. 83, 94.
Charles F. Montgomery described this form as “among the finest New York card tables” and acknowledged the attribution of such tables to Phyfe, but he demonstrated that these tables were “not exclusively made by Phyfe” by citing The New-York Revised Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work for 1810.5Montgomery 1966, 337. Customers of any New York cabinetmaker could order:
A Solid Eliptic Pillar and Claw Card Table
Three feet long, three claws, (as No.1, in plate)
Two of ditto to turn out with the joint rail, £4 12 0
For example, a similar card table by Phyfe’s contemporary, Michael Allison, one of a pair given by the Newcomb family to Lucinda Newcomb and Benjamin Leonard Johnson on their marriage in 1832, is nearly identical to the Collection’s example, with a clover-leaf top, leaf-carved vase-shaped support, and carved and reeded legs ending in brass lion’s-paw feet.6McClelland, pl. 187.
Certainly, the Clay card table is of New York City origin, in the English style, and made in the shop of an experienced craftsman. Its actual maker is, however, unknown.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.