This rare tripod table, inset with a top of carved Chinese soapstone, represents an English interpretation of the contemporary French fashion for porcelain and hardstone-mounted tables de cabaret. Invariably commissioned by marchand-merciers such as Simon-Philippe Poirier and Dominique Daguerre, these latter tables were executed by bnistes such as Bernard van Risenburgh and Martin Carlin. (C. Sargentson, Merchants and Luxury Markets, London, 1996, pp.48-50, pl.20-21 and A. Pradre, Les bnistes Francais, Paris, 1989, p.192, fig.181 and pp. 358-359, figs. 424-428). The concept is not entirely unprecedented in Hanoverian England, however, as a pair of George II mahogany torcheres with scagliola tops was supplied to Ham House circa 1740 (P. Thornton et el., 'Ham House', Furniture History Society Journal, XVI, 198, fig. 179).
Soapstone, a soft stone also known as steatite, is among the softest of all stones and therefore suitable for carving. Objects made of soapstone were prominent in early European collections of Chinese art, reflecting its production in southeastern coastal areas where trade was conducted from the 16th century and blossomed after 1720. Typically, these soapstone souvenirs took the form of figural carvings (such as those collected by Sir John Soane), but seals, cups and ewers were also traded. These imported carved artifacts, also executed in ivory, tortoiseshell, horn, sandlewood and mother-of-pearl, were appreciated for their intricate workmanship. Similar carved soapstone plaques would have been used by the Chinese elite, displayed on stands in the manner of table screens (C.Clunas, Chinese Carving, London, 1996, pp.69-90).
This soapstone plaque rests upon a base with open curved supports of a type that appears in pattern books published by cabinetmakers such as Thomas Chippendale and Mayhew and Ince in the 1750's and 1760's. This table frame follows most closely designs for Tea Kettle Stands published in Mayhew and Ince's The Universal System of Household Furniture of 1762, plate XIV. The cabinetmakers John Mayhew and William Ince established their longlasting and successful partnership in 1759. Extensive records exist for the firm and their impressive list of clients included the 9th Earl of Exeter at Burghley House, the 4th Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace and the 5th Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. For a full discussion of their work see G.Beard and C. Gilbert, Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, pp.589-598.