These spectacular tables are decorated with central allegorical panels flanked by small roundels of putti on an elaborately conceived ground with paired winged figures, urns, swags and laurel. This sensational grotesque-type painting is executed in the ‘Roman’ style popularized in late 18th century England by leading London designers including Robert Adam and William Chambers. The decorated tops are executed on what appears to be a papier mâché surface which places them within a small group similarly designed and executed.
The design of the tops is very nearly identical to two tables with fully decorated bases that were sold in consecutive lots from the collection of the late Mrs. John E. Rovensky (formerly Mrs. Morton F. Plant), 1051 Fifth Avenue, New York, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 15-19 January 1957, lots 968 and 969, and subsequently as part of the esteemed Walter P. Chrysler Jr. Collection, sold Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 6-7 May 1960, lots 507-508. The first table is illustrated in H. Cescinsky, English Furniture of the Eighteen Century, 1911, vol. III, pp. 28 and 34, fig. 22. The same table was illustrated in both Rovensky and Chrysler auctions (using the same photograph, in fact) and represents the same male figure, apparently representative of Capricorn with the attributes of a goat, fire and a ball. The unillustrated pair by description matches the female ‘Cancer’ figure with her attributes of a wreath, crab and ball. Another example, virtually identical to the Rovensky/Chrysler ‘Capricorn’ table, was sold by a Gentleman, Christie’s, London, 17 November 1983, lot 97 and is illustrated in P. Broome, ed., The Hyde Park Collection 1965-1990, 1989, pp. 184 - 185.
Interestingly, this small group of tables can be related to a second small nucleus of tables with Royal provenance. These too feature tops executed on papier mâché, the designs of which are derived from a drawing by John Yenn of circa 1780. Yenn was the student of Royal architect Sir William Chambers (d. 1796) and it is presently thought that he borrowed from or derived his designs from those of his master. The decorative composition featured on this second group can be described as slightly more refined in its classicism. The group comprises two examples bearing the brand of King George IV – on public view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, respectively, and a third smaller table in a private collection; all relate to a known Chambers table supplied for Gower House now at the Courtauld Gallery, London (J. Harris and M. Snodin, Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, London, 1996, pp. 168 - 169, figs. 251 - 253). The tables are thought to have left the Royal Collection in an 1836 at Buckingham Palace conducted by Phillips at a time of its refurnishing and following the demolition of Carlton House (11 August 1986, lots 109-110).
The Chambers connection to this second group of tables raises some interesting thoughts about the first group which includes the present pair. The style of the decoration is inspired by if not after the work of Giovanni Battista Cipriani who collaborated with Chambers on many projects, including at Buckingham House and Somerset House. A fascinating 1911 reference in the Encyclopoedia Britannica (Hugh Chisholm, ed.) lists Cipriani as a decorator of furniture where his amorini and medallion subjects feature against bands of ornament by Pergolesi, descriptions which can be applied to these tables. Furthermore, some interesting references associate Chambers with the use of papier mâché. In 1840, the Literary World informed that ‘The Papier-Mache decorations distributed in the ornamental parts of houses erected from the designs of Sir William Chambers, and supplied from the workshop of his friend Wilton, the statuary, appear, on a late inspection, to be in a perfectly sound condition'. And Charles Bielefeld wrote in 1850 that eighteenth century chimneypieces were ‘very effectively decorated in Papier-Mâché, as was formerly much practiced by Sir William Chambers and others’; also: ‘Chambers’s own house in Berners Street…has the Papier-Mâché which enriched the fanciful architecture at the back of the house in perfect preservation’ (On the Use of the Improved Papier-Mache In Furniture, in the Interior Decoration of Buildings, and In Works of Art). From the latter quote, John Harris surmises the possibility of a papier-mâché veneer at Chambers’s house painted and varnished (J Harris, Sir William Chambers, London, 1970, p. 217).
Chambers fashioned himself ‘really a very pretty connoisseur in furniture’ in 1773. His designs embody the prevailing taste in classicism at that moment, despite his attempts to set himself apart from his rival Robert Adam. He reacted to the Adam brothers’s publication of A Work in Architecture (1773) by writing to Lord Grantham: ‘they boast of having first brought the true style of decoration into England, and that all the architects of the present day are only servile copyers of their excellence. I do not agree with them in the first of these positions; and can produce many proofs against the last, among others, Melbourne House, decorated in a manner almost diametrically opposite to theirs; and more, as I flatter myself, in the true style, as approaching nearer to the most approved style of the ancients’ (N. Goodison, ‘William Chambers’s Furniture Designs’, Furniture History, 1990, p. 69). The design and authorship of these very interesting tables remains elusive but they were obviously supplied by a top maker/designer for a very rich and fashionable interior at the time in which they were made.