The prestige of the English or specifically London trained craftsmen in America, often touted as a great selling point through the 18th century, began to shift with the turn of the century. During the 1790s and early 1800s, London designers increasingly looked to the French for inspiration, and thousands of French emigrés arrived in the ports of New York and Philadelphia fleeing the Revolution at home. The increased popularity of French designs in furniture was symbiotic with the arrival in America of a number of French trained ébenistes and cabinetmakers. Foremost among these imported talents was the cabinetmaker Charles Honoré Lannuier, who arrived in New York in 1803. Trained in Paris, Lannuier learned first hand the new designs and decorative treatments of the Empire style.
The Empire style drew upon the archaeological discoveries made after the French conquests in Egypt and Italy and adapted these ancient motifs into the designs for contemporary furnishings. Foremost of these motifs in the present table are the carved and gilt dolphin supports, an apparently unique design in Lannuier's oeuvre. Among the most popular motifs in antiquity, such stylized dolphins appear frequently in ancient mosaics, including those at Pompeii and other archaeological sites. Lannuier sometimes used the motif in the carved feet of his table designs (see figs. 1 and 2), but no other known table has survived with fully carved supports that the present table exhibits.
The designs of Deming and Bulkley, another New York cabinetmaking firm, often include a similar configuration of dolphin supports. Given the history of a number of such tables in Charleston, South Carolina, and the relative lack of such tables with New York histories, it is interesting to consider the possibility of a regional preference for the design (see McInnis and Leath, "Beautiful Specimens, Elegant Patterns: New York Furniture for the Charleston Market, 1810-1840," American Furniture (Chipstone Foundation, 1996). This hypothesis is further augmented by the history of the present table, which has a tradition of ownership in Cuba. Lannuier, like Deming and Bulkley, Duncan Phyfe and other New York cabinetmakers, may have tried to exploit the markets in the American south as well. He is known to have sent a shipment to Savannah that arrived in 1819, and more to the point, his estate inventory records under the heading "Property Abroad" an entry for "[furniture sent to] Trinidad de Cuba, consigned to Capt. Roy" at a value of $534 (see Kenny, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), pp. 59-62 and appendix 9). It is possible that the present table was part of that shipment.
The table possesses a number of details typical of Lannuier's shop. The imported, gilt-bronze mount depicting two winged female figures centering a lyre furthers the references to the antique and is found on a number of other examples that bear his label, including a number of card tables (see for example Kenny, cat. nos. 67 and 74). The paw feet with gilt acanthus-carved supports are also in keeping with the products of his shop (see for example Kenny, cat. nos. 72, 78, 113). The pierced brass banding on the lower edge of the skirt is also common to many documented examples of Lannuier's work. However, the pattern of the brass inlay on the edges of the top, an anthemion, star and diamond repeat, occurs in only one other known example of Lannuier's work, a pair of card tables that also incorporate dolphin carved feet in their design (fig. 2). Lannuier advertised that he was importing such brass ornaments from France, and further that he made "all kinds of Furniture, Beds, Chairs, &c, in the newest and latest French fashion; and that he has brought for that purpose gilt and brass frames, borders of ornaments" (cited in Jillian Ehninger, "With the Richest Ornaments Just Imported from France: Ornamental Hardware on Boston, New York, and Philadelphia Furniture, 1800-1840," master's thesis, University of Delaware, 1993, p. 48).
More typical of Lannuier's card tables is the caryatid central support seen on the tables illustrated in fig. 2. While the dolphins of the present table are unique, there is evidence that Lannuier already had the skirt of this table made when he (or the person who ordered the table) decided to incorporate the two supports on the front corners. The center bottom edge of the skirt has a small, rectangular mortise just the size to accommodate the tenon from a caryatid support. However, the bottom on the table shows no evidence of a mortise, indicating that the table was completed without such a central figure.
Initial surface tests suggest that the imbricated bodies of the dolphins were originally finished in verte antique and contrasted with the gilded heads and gills. Similarly, the acanthus carving on the legs was originally gilt above verte antique finished feet.