By family tradition, these tables were supplied to the brewer and Member of Parliament for Navan, John Preston (d.1753), for the Hall at Bellinter House, Co. Meath. Designed by the celebrated Irish Palladian architect, Richard Castle and traditionally dated to 1750, Bellinter's Palladian layout echoes that of one of Castle's masterpieces, Powerscourt House, Co. Wicklow which dates from the 1730s, leading David Griffin of the Irish Architectural Archive and the Knight of Glin to believe that Bellinter was built earlier, i.e. in the 1740s. Bellinter's tour de force is the Hall, richly decorated with ornamental plasterwork by Italian stuccatori and crowned by a Doric cornice. Its focal point is the monumental stone chimneypiece centred by a Bacchic mask, while the walls are decorated with military trophies and swagged drapery. The Bellinter tables, with their 'Roman' marble slabs were almost certainly designed to stand either side of the door leading through to the Saloon, beneath Venus-shell niches which would have echoed the theme of Venus displayed in the dolphins on the tables below. This hypothesis is reinforced by the statue of Venus accompanied by a twisting dolphin, in one niche, and the youthful Apollo in the other which may be copies of earlier statues. Moreover, the Vitruvian scrolled frieze on the tables is carried through into the Staircase Hall, where it marks the division between the ground and first floors (C. Casey and A. Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland, North Leinster, London, 1993, pp. 164-168 (including plan)).
Unfortunately however these tables are not listed in the Inventory of furniture taken at Bellinter circa 1893, and it would therefore seem most probable that they left the house when it passed out of the Preston family in 1892. Bellinter remained the seat of the Preston family, including John Preston's grandson, the 1st and last Lord Tara, until John Preston's death in 1892, when it passed by inheritance from the Prestons into the Briscoe family. Sold in 1955, it later became a convent for The Sisters of Sion, a Catholic order, who continue to live at Bellinter today.
THE MARBLE TOPS
These 'Roman' marble table-slabs, of veined white marble, are 'jewelled' or inlaid with a colourful mosaic of pietra dura in the Roman-pavement manner; and each displays Apollo-sunbursts in three octagon compartments within ribboned borders of golden Siena in a Grecian key-fret. Their pattern corresponds to the celebrated pair of marble 'tables' or slabs that crowned the Chiswick table frames commissioned by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) for the Gallery of his villa at Chiswick circa 1730 supplied under the direction of William Kent. The Chiswick tops may well have formed part of the objets de vertu assembled by Burlington on his Grand Tour, in 1719 and may conceivably be identifiable with those referred to in a letter to Sir Andrew Fountaine, in which Burlington bemoaned that as things were 'scarce', all that he had been able to buy were 'some tables at Genova'.
Although undoubtedly from the same workshop as the Chiswick table tops, it is however certainly possible that all four pietra dura slabs were worked in England. The 1770 inventory of the 'Red Velvet Room' at Chiswick for instance listed: ' A Black Marble Side Board Table inlaid with pebbles on a Carv'd Gilt frame, Two Ditto Candlesticks with brass Moldings'. Now at Chatsworth, these pedestals are inlaid with flowered Greek-key fret of pietra dura and it has been suggested that these were executed at Lord Burlington's marble works in Yorkshire (T.S. Rosoman, 'The decoration and use of the principal apartments of Chiswick House, 1727-70', Burlington Magazine, October 1985, figs. 11-12).
The eagle, emblematical of both Rome and 'Roman virtue', also symbolises Jupiter, father of the Gods, while the dolphin is an attribute of Venus. Recalling the Nature Goddess's triumphal emergance from the sea, the latter was a much favoured motif for garden fountain sculpture.
These stone-painted and marble-slabbed tables, which would have been entitled 'Roman tables' in early 18th Century pattern books, were designed in the antique manner as sideboard-tables for a stone banqueting-hall or saloon. The ornament of the frame is intended to recall ancient poetry, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses or Loves of the Gods, and as such the spread eagle would recall its role in bearing away the youthful Gannymede to serve as Jupiter's cup-bearer at the banquet of the Gods. The plinth-supported eagle is accompanied by the Goddess of Love's embowed or sporting dolphins serving as voluted truss-supports. And, appropriate to a buffet-table intended to support silver water-fountains, each frame is wreathed by a festive wave-scrolled ribbon guilloche, named after Vitruvius, author of the Roman architectural treaties.
The original design of the early Georgian eagle-supported pier-table is particularly associated with Lord Burlington's protegé, the artist architect William Kent (d.1748), who was granted the title of 'Master Carpenter' of King George I's Board of Works. In 1725 Kent featured Roman eagles in his illustrations for Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, recounting the history of Rome's foundation after the Trojan Wars; and this was accompanied by a dolphin-enriched fountain and a sideboard or buffet-table with plinth-base and voluted truss-supports. Kent, who introduced scenes from The Odyssey in his Roman-mosaiced ceiling for King George I's apartment or gallery at Kensington Palace, would also have been responsible for the design of the Palace's dolphin-supported tables (D. Watkin, The Royal Interiors of Regency England, London, 1984, p. 67). Both the eagle and the dolphin proved popular caryatid figures for such tables; and one such 'carved and gilt dolphin frame' was commissioned in 1741 by George Brudenell, 4th Earl of Cardigan (d.1790) (T. Murdoch, et al., Boughton House, London, 1992, p. 135, fig. 136). This matched another frame that he already owned and was supplied by the court cabinet maker Benjamin Goodison (d.1767), who adopted the Spread Eagle as his trade sign when he established his Long Acre premises in the reign of George I.
A virtually identical pair of sideboard tables, supplied to Hall Place, Kent, was sold by the Lady Anne Tree, removed from Mereworth Castle, Kent, in these Rooms, 23 May 1968, lot 124, and are illustrated in G. Beard and J. Goodison, English Furniture 1500-1840, Oxford, 1987, p. 92, fig. 1. Interestingly, their slabs share the same distinctive strongly-figured Siena marble, although the tops are of plain design.