Conceived and executed as a masterpiece, this tea table survives in a remarkable state of preservation, its old, largely undisturbed surface revealing a magnificent mahogany grain and the full depth of its exuberant carving. The table's carved details, described in the period as a "scalloped top," "carved pillar," "fluting for the pillar," "leaves on knees" and "claw feet," make this design the most expensive option listed in Philadelphia's 1772 cabinetmaker's price book and totaled L6 26s for a mahogany model (Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work (Philadelphia, 1772), p. 16 as reprinted in Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book (Philadelphia, 2005).
Based on documented architectural carving, the ornament is attributed to the partnership of Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez, two of Philadelphia's most acclaimed carvers working in the eighteenth century. In 1766, they were paid for consoles and moldings for the drawing room and entrance hall of Cliveden, the Germantown home of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew. Three years later, Samuel Powel III debited their account in his ledger book for unspecified carving for his Third Street house. Consoles from both these commissions feature acanthus-leaf carving that in both design and execution is closely related to the vase and leg carving on this table. As identified by Luke Beckerdite, distinctive details of their work seen in these pieces include the use of a large, U-shaped gouge running the length of each leaf, a series of gouges relieving the convex areas between leaves, overlapping lobes and, on the Powel consoles and table's vase, a deeply cut V-shaped gouge at the base of the central spine (fig. 2) (Luke Beckerdite, "Philadelphia carving shops, part II: Bernard and Jugiez," The Magazine Antiques (September 1985), pp. 500-503). By the mid 1760s, Jugiez emerged as the primary craftsman in the partnership, with Bernard focusing on the marketing and operational aspects of the business, and it is Jugiez's individual handiwork that is evident on the table offered here (Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, "A Table's Tale: Craft, Art, and Opportunity in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia," American Furniture 2004 (Milwaukee, 2004), p. 23).
Virtually identical, a table now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 1) descended in the same family and the two tables were long thought to have been made as a pair. Close examination reveals that the PMA example is slightly larger, with more flutes in the column. Both carved by Jugiez, the two were undoubtedly made in the same shop and if owned in the same eighteenth-century household, one may have been made at a slightly later date to match the other.
Providing an attribution to a cabinetmaker and an approximate date of production, the tables are closely related in both design and execution to the hairy-paw foot fire screens made by Thomas Affleck (1740-1795) for John Cadwalader in late 1770 or early 1771 (fig. 3). Though accented by different motifs, the primary acanthus-leaf carving on the legs and vase follow the same design and bear the hallmark features of Jugiez's work discussed above. Furthermore, as Beckerdite demonstrates in his discussion of the PMA table, the basic configuration of the turnings on the table and screens are identical with only the scale adjusted for the different size of each tripod form (Beckerdite, p. 505).
In 1935, William MacPherson Hornor published this tea table and a card table (fig. 4) that descended in the same family and implied that both were made for Cornelius Stevenson (Hornor, pp. 142, 147). However, the family's only eighteenth-century direct ancestor of this name is Cornelius Stevenson (1779-1860), who stands as a later, possibly second owner. Cornelius probably did not inherit the table from his father, William Stevenson (1748-1817), who was born in Surinam and did not arrive in Philadelphia until 1784, well after the date the table was made, but it may have descended from the family of his wife, Mary May (1786-1860), the daughter of Adam (d. 1816) and Catherine Diehl (d. 1801).
An active participant in the War of 1812, Cornelius Stevenson was a member of the Carpenters Company, a vestryman of St. Paul's and was later elected City Treasurer. Upon his death in 1860, in a sermon given at St. Andrew's Church, the Reverend William Bacon Stevens noted that he was a guardian of the poor, supporter of the almshouse and that for over twenty years, he had occupied the highest financial office in the city with the fullest trust of his constituents (William Bacon Stevens, Sermon in Commemoration of Cornelius Stevenson (Philadelphia, 1860). His wife inherited the house at no. 296 Walnut Street, as well as all of the plate and household furniture (Philadelphia City Hall, will book 43, no. 157, p. 385). The table then passed down along the male lines to George G. Meade Easby (1918-2005), who consigned it to auction in 1990.