Described by William MacPherson Hornor as "The Acme of Perfection in American Piecrust Tables," the design of this magnificent tea table stands as the most successful of the renowned Philadelphia form (fig. 1). The table survives in a remarkable state of preservation, the base with its old surface darkened over the years, and its feet with the original casters. Never out of the family and previously undocumented, this table stands as one of the most important discoveries in recent years.
Conceived with a masterful eye, the expertly carved ornament echoes and unites the disparate components into a well-integrated scheme. Here, the designer-carver carefully selected devices that would ease the transition from the top to the pedestal and from the pedestal to the tripod base. Just as the gadrooned canopy above the urn refers to the flare of the top, the acanthus leaf carving on the knees visually flows both upward toward the urn and outward toward the adjacent legs.
The craftsman credited with the design of this table is considered the most accomplished carver working in Philadelphia in the 1750s and early 1760s. His identity undiscovered, he is known solely by the body of surviving furniture bearing his distinctive hand. His work was first recognized on a high chest in the Garvan Collection at Yale University and he has since become known as the "Garvan" carver. Tell-tale traits of his workmanship are seen in leaf-tips that are flattened with a series of parallel gouges, and others that are sharply undercut to create a thumb-like digit. This carver established his working vocabulary early on, but as he progressed was able to achieve greater clarity in the execution of his designs. Made in the late 1750s or early 1760s, this table illustrates the carver's later work and the full mastery of his craft (for more on the Garvan carver, see Thatcher Freund, Objects of Desire (New York, 1993), pp. 32-36; see also Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, "A Table's Tale: Craft, Art, and Opportunity in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia," American Furniture 2004, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 2004), pp. 12, 14, fig. 24).
Related tea tables with carving attributed to the Garvan carver include five with vasiform-turned pedestals. Aside from an early example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these others all display a similarly proportioned pedestal, identical egg-and-dart carving at the top of the legs and closely related acanthus-leaf carving on the knees (figs. 1-4; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1985), p. 195, cat. 124). No two are exactly the same, but the table offered here shares the greatest number of details with that in fig. 4. Their tops are virtually identical, both measuring just over thirty one inches and both with eight repeated passages, the straighter sections wider than the scalloped sections. Furthermore, both display similarly executed gadrooning on the canopy, a superbly delineated guilloche on the lower ring of the table and knee carving terminating in a single, twisted leaf. Like the tables in figs. 1 and 3, this table has floral carving on the pedestal between the legs. Here, the carver demonstrates his ability to combine both relief and intaglio carving in a single motif. On each table, the design of the vase ornament varies. On the focal point of the entire form, this variation was undoubtedly intentional in order to make each table a unique product. Yet, the protruding band on the vase of this table, with C-scrolls alternating with intaglio cabochons, is seen without the underlying acanthus leaves on a pole screen at Chipstone, also executed by the Garvan carver in his more developed phase (fig. 5).
As seen on the tables in figs. 1, 3 and 4, the knee carving on this table is centered by a pair of opposing C-scrolls, but unlike the others, it is enclosed by trefoil shaping. Similar schemes are seen on at least two other forms with carving attributed to the same hand, a marble-top sideboard table at Winterthur Museum and a turret-top card table at Bayou Bend and in each, the carver tailored the motif to the curvature of the leg (Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), cat. 359; David B. Warren, Bayou Bend: American Furniture, Paintings and Silver from the Bayou Bend Collection (Houston, 1975), p. 58, cat. 110). On these related tables, the C-scroll and trefoil design is elongated to emphasize the vertical legs. Here, the upper trefoil is compressed, reflecting the foreshortening effect as the carving traverses along a more horizontal plane.
THE FISHER-FOX FAMILY OF PHILADELPHIA
The table was inherited by the present owner from her family's home, Chelwood, located along the Delaware River in Andalusia, Bucks County (fig. 9). Built in 1813, Chelwood was purchased by Dr. Charles Ray King (1813-1901), the present owner's great-grandfather, in 1848. A grandson of the statesman Rufus King (1755-1827), Charles hailed from a New York family, but his wife, Hannah Wharton Fisher (b. 1816) descended from several prominent Quaker families in the Philadelphia area and it is most likely that the table was passed down from her side of the family. She was the daughter of William Wharton Fisher (1786-1838) and Mary Pleasants Fox (1790-1872) (figs. 7, 8) and, assuming the table had passed directly down previously in the family, the first owners were from their grandparents' generation, members of the Fisher, Fox, Pleasants and Wharton families (fig. 6).
All were distinguished citizens of their day. With a mahogany tea table listed in his inventory, William Fisher (1718-1787) stands as a likely first owner. Fisher was among the Quaker mercantile elite and in 1773 was elected mayor of Philadelphia. His inventory describes a richly furnished three-story house with an abundance of mahogany and walnut furniture. Standing on the entry of the second floor, his mahogany tea table was valued at L3 15 shillings, along with a dumbwaiter and curtains (Philadelphia Wills, 1787, no. 280). Less descriptive, but a possible reference including this table, are the "two Mahogany tables" valued together at $13 in front parlor of Samuel Pleasants' house (Philadelphia Wills, 1807, no. 124). Like Fisher, he was a successful Quaker merchant. Born in Virginia, he moved to Philadelphia in 1762, the year he wed Mary Pemberton (1738-1821) and the table may have been commissioned on the occasion of their marriage. He also had ties to the cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck (1740-1795), who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1763. Affleck arrived with letters of introduction, one of them to Israel Pemberton, Pleasants' father-in-law and, in 1777, when twenty Quakers were banished to Virginia for their refusal to support the War, Pleasants and Affleck were among the exiles (Frank Willing Leach, Pleasants Family (Philadelphia, 1939), pp. 25-28). Preventing an attribution to Affleck at this time, the Garvan carver is thought to have worked exclusively in one shop at any given time and there are no known survivals displaying the collaboration of his carving with Affleck's cabinetwork. The probate papers of William Wharton and Mary Pleasants (Fox) Fisher's other two grandfathers, Joseph Fox (1709-1779) and Thomas Wharton (1730-1784), do not include detailed lists of furnishings, but both were wealthy individuals who would have owned furniture of comparable quality and expense (Philadelphia Wills, 1780, no. 281 and 1784, no. 389). Trained as a carpenter, Fox inherited half of the large estate of his master, James Portues (d. 1737) and before his own death had amassed vast landholdings in Philadelphia and its surrounds. Closely associated with Benjamin Franklin, Fox became a prominent political and civic leader and was for many years the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly (John W. Jordan, Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania (New York, 1911), pp. 318-329). Wharton was a wealthy merchant and along with Pleasants and Affleck, was among the twenty Quakers exiled to Virginia in 1777. As his estate was confiscated at this time, he is less likely to have been the first owner of this tea table (Jordan, p. 541).
Thus, with its esteemed design, execution, family history and condition, this tea table embodies the qualities most celebrated today. Conceived and crafted by a master artisan, commissioned by one of Philadelphia's most prominent families and treasured as an heirloom by its subsequent owners, the table now stands as one of the greatest survivals of colonial American craftsmanship.