Representing one of the most iconic and celebrated forms of colonial American furniture, this Philadelphia scallop-top tea table is a masterpiece of design and craftsmanship. The talents of both carver and cabinetmaker are well evident in the beautifully balanced design in which the disparate components, the top, column and legs, are visually unified by the carved ornament. Known to have created some of the most opulent furnishings made in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, its carver was a master of his craft and given the evidence from other forms with carving by the same hand, it is probable that the table was made in the shop of renowned cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph (1737-1791). The table displays all of the carved options listed in the 1772 Philadelphia Price Book, making it among the most expensive versions of the model available in Philadelphia at the time. Made of mahogany with "claw feet," "leaves on the knees," "scalloped top" and "carved pillar," the table would have cost £5 15 shillings, plus an extra five shillings for "fluting the pillar" (Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book: A Facsimile (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 16).
Displaying distinctly rendered acanthus leaves, the knees on this table reflect the work of a carver whose handiwork is seen on a large body of important Philadelphia furniture from the 1760s and 1770s. The leaves are distinguished by their rounded tips and wide veining, which in some areas, such as the terminus of each leafy cluster on this table, is so broad that most of leaf interior has been removed. Uncovered by Alan Miller and Luke Beckerdite in their research on carvers Hercules Courtenay (c.1744-1784) and John Pollard (1740-1787), this carver's work is seen on a variety of forms, many of which are attributed to Randolph's shop. According to Miller, this carver was an immigrant who trained abroad, probably London, as his earliest Philadelphia work from the mid-1760s reflects the hand of a fully and professionally trained artisan. He was one of the few in colonial America who produced hairy-paw feet and was among the elite group of craftsmen who from 1769 to 1771 were commissioned to provide furnishings for General John Cadwalader's (1742-1786) refurbished town house at 164 South Second Street. His carving appears on a pair of hairy-paw card tables and an en suite set of side chairs with gadrooned front rails (fig. 1), both attributed to Randolph's shop and made for Cadwalader's back parlor (furniture with carving attributed to this carver has been identified by Miller as cited in Christie's, New York, 22 January 2010, p. 160 and Sotheby's, New York, Property from a Private Collection, 18 January 2003, pp. 124-125; for the Cadwalader tables, see Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 345 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, acc. no. 2007-65-11). Other hairy-paw furniture attributed to this carver includes a pair of similar card tables, an en suite sofa, a round-top tea table (fig. 2) and the knees of a side chair (albeit with replaced feet) attributed to Randolph's shop and partly carved by Pollard (Sotheby Parke Bernet, 10-11 May 1974, lot 446; Skinner, 16 June 1990, lot 240; William MacPherson Hornor, Jr., Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture (Washington D.C., 1935), pl. 99; Christie's, New York, 27 January 1996, lot 247, same table sold Sotheby's, New York, Property from a Private Collection, 18 January 2003, lot 907; Andrew Brunk, "Benjamin Randolph Revisited," American Furniture 2007, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2007), p. 38, fig. 58). Other furniture attributed to Randolph's shop with carving by this craftsman includes a scroll-foot side chair at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Brunk, p. 36, figs. 54, 55).
This carver's work frequently appears on furniture also partly carved by John Pollard or with close associations to the work of Hercules Courtenay, links that both suggest his identity as Richard Butts and strengthen the attribution to Randolph's shop. Miller notes that there are numerous chairs from the 1770s displaying the hand of both this carver and Pollard, a commonplace practice whereby one craftsman embellished the most visible ornament and another craftsman, the less prominent. This led Miller to surmise that the carver of the table offered here was very possibly Butts, who in 1773 formed a partnership with Pollard (for examples of the collaboration of this carver and Pollard, see the hairy-paw side chair cited above in Brunk, p. 38, fig. 58; Edwin J. Hipkiss, Eighteenth Century American Arts: The M. and M. Karolik Collection (Boston, 1941), no. 33). Linking this carver to Courtenay are several tea tables with distinctive gouge-marks defining the knuckles; such feet are seen on at least two tables with knee carving attributed to Courtenay (fig. 3), at least one table with knee carving attributed to this carver (fig. 4) and on another table attributed to Randolph's shop (Christie's, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eddy Nicholson, 27-28 January 1995, lot 1081; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), pp. 193-194, cat. 123; Christie's, New York, 22 January 2010, lot 265; Brunk, p. 13, figs. 15, 16). Although the gouge marks are not evident on the table offered here, the feet are otherwise in keeping with these examples, with slender shaping to the talons between the first and second knuckles and a flared or bulbous shaping to the talons between the second and third knuckles. Such similarities suggest the same hand, perhaps that of this carver or Courtenay or perhaps that of a third individual who worked alongside both in the same shop. Any one of these scenarios would indicate a close working relationship between this carver and Courtenay, as well as a link to Randolph. Both Pollard and Courtenay worked in Randolph's shop in the mid- to late 1760s, after Randolph had presumably paid for their travel to America and retained them on indenture before they set up independent businesses. Given the number of instances in which this carver's work appears on Randolph-attributed forms, as well as his evidently close ties to Pollard and Courtenay, it is highly likely that he too worked in Randolph's shop. As noted by Brunk, no documented or signed tripod tea tables are known from Randolph's shop, so attributions of this form to his shop rest on circumstantial evidence such as the handiwork of carvers known to have been employed by the master cabinetmaker (Brunk, pp. 12-14, figs. 15, 16). For more on Courtenay and Pollard, see Beatrice B. Garvan, entries, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 111-114; Luke Beckerdite, "Philadelphia Carving Shops, Part III: Hercules Courtenay and His School," The Magazine Antiques (May 1987), pp. 1052-63; Leroy Graves and Luke Beckerdite, "New Insights on John Cadwalader's Commode-Seat Side Chairs," American Furniture 2000, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2000), pp. 152-168. For references to Richard Butts, see Garvan, p. 114; Sotheby's, New York, 18 January 2003, lot 907; Brunk, pp. 47, 76.
Other tea tables with carving attributed to this carver possibly identified as Butts display related turned pedestals, suggesting that they are all products of the same cabinetshop. Although showing variations in proportions, these tables each feature a double ring molding above the ball and double ring, reel, ogee and torus moldings below. Described by Albert Sack as a "masterpiece," a virtual mate in a private collection appears to differ only in its lack of pedestal fluting and lack or ornament between the legs and like the table offered here, it has a slightly taller ball with faint concave shaping to the column above. A similarly proportioned ball is also seen on an example possibly made for David Deshler, who also owned furniture carved by Pollard (see lot 107 in this sale) (Albert Sack, The New Fine Points of Furniture (New York, 1993), p. 303; Sotheby's, New York, 28-31 January 1994, lot 1295). Three other tables exhibiting this carver's ornament comprise the tables illustrated in figs. 2 and 4 as well as lot 136 in this sale.
Prominently displayed in the center of the "Chippendale Room" at the pioneering Girl Scouts Exhibition in 1929 (fig. 5), this table was previously owned by Mrs. Charles Hallam Keep (1872-1954), who formed one of the most important early twentieth-century collections of American furniture. She was born Margaret Williams, the daughter of George L. Williams (b. c. 1845), a prosperous financier in Buffalo, New York whose mansion designed by McKim, Mead & White still stands today on 'Millionaires' Row.' In 1894, she married Charles Hallam Keep (1861-1941) of nearby Lockport, who was then practising law in Buffalo after graduating from Harvard and Harvard Law School. In 1901, President William McKinley was shot on the day he was due to attend a formal lunch at George Williams' stately home and upon his death a week later, Williams was among those who greeted Vice President Theodore Roosevelt in Buffalo, where he was promptly inaugurated America's 26th President. Perhaps in part because of his father-in-law's connections, Charles Hallam Keep was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Treasury under President Roosevelt, a position he served from 1903 to 1907. Keep later moved to New York City, where he held prominent governing positions in several financial and commercial institutions. He resided on Manhattan's Upper East Side until his death in 1941 at the family's summer home in York Harbor, Maine. Upon his death and as indicated by a label glued to the underside of the top, the table became the property of Keep's eldest daughter, Eleanor Williams Keep (1896-after 1959) from whom it was acquired by the firm of Israel Sack, Inc. (A History of the City of Buffalo and Niagra Falls (Buffalo, New York, 1896), pp. 267-268; Mark D. Donnelly, The Fine Art of Capturing Buffalo (Buffalo, New York, 2008), p. 44; Charles Eugene Banks and Le Roy Armstrong, Theodore Roosevelt, Twenty-Sixth President of the United States (Chicago, 1901), p. 373; Who's Who in New York City and State (New York, 1911), p. 542; "Chas. H. Keep Dies; Ex-Treasury Aide," The New York Times, 31 August 1941; "Mrs. Charles H. Keep," The New York Times, 26 December 1954).