The mahogany table-top
This extraordinary 'table', as the table-top was originally called, formed part of the remarkable collection of antiquities and rarities associated with the antiquary John Evelyn (d. 1706). It is constructed from a huge plank (56 x 61½in.) of mahogany which would appear to have been brought from America by a ship of King Charles II's Navy. It seems likely, though the timber is not mentioned, that this is the 'Very large Table' listed in the Hall by John Evelyn in his 1702 inventory of Wotton House, Surrey. It was accompanied by 'Two large wainscot foulding table oval' and 'A smaller folding Table'; and, like them it also appears to have been intended to stand on a folding 'gate-leg' frame. Evelyn's full entry reads: 'A very large table to place upon another Table of an Oval Shape to fold, which has no frame to it: so as it stands folded up behind the greate stayrecase doore' (1702 Inventory of Wotton House mss. at Christ Church, Oxford).
John Evelyn: Antiquarian
Evelyn, celebrated courtier, connoisseur, author and diarist, had married Mary Browne, while her father was serving as Charles I's diplomatic representative to France; and he occupied his father-in-law's home near Deptford, when he returned to England in 1652 after spending ten years spent in Italy and France.
The fine trees of the Sayes Court park were a source of pride to Evelyn, who was the author of a celebrated treatise on arboriculture published in 1664 and entitled Sylva: A Discourse of Forrest Trees. He had been appointed to the council of Charles II's Royal Society in 1662, and it was for the Navy commissioners that he issued his Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber (by the 1820s his description of the cultivation and uses of trees had passed through 10 editions).
It was in the neighbourhood of Sayes-Court that Evelyn made his 'discovery' in 1671 of the 'incomparable' Grinling Gibbons (d. 1721); and, according to his own notes, he then introduced him to Charles II. This was later acknowledged by the sculptor carver, who presented him with a walnut-tree 'table', whose lime-tree frame, according to Evelyn was carved by 'that famous artist Gibbons' (D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons, London, 1998). It is also likely to have been in the early 1670s that Evelyn acquired the mahogany for his 'table'. It was during this period that he was serving on Charles II's Council for Colonial affairs, so the importation of such a remarkable piece of the rare timber would certainly have drawn the attention of the author of Sylva. It is also likely that Evelyn was responsible for having it sculpted in the form of a contemporary oval 'parlour-table'. Evelyn first took up residence at Wotton House, the family home in 1694, before inheriting it from his elder brother five years later.
J. Bramston records in his biography of Evelyn entitled Man of Taste, of 1733:
'Queer country-puts extol Queen Bess's reign,
And of lost hospitality complain.
Say thou that dost thy father's table praise,
Was there mahogena in former days?'
The Evelyn Diaries
Evelyn had formed a lifelong friendship with Samuel Pepys, who also served as a Naval official; and he later earned fame as a diarist alongside Pepys when his own diaries were discovered in 1813. These diaries, which helped reveal the history of Grinling Gibbons' rise to fame, are thought to have been in the drawers of a pietre-dure cabinet, that Evelyn had commissioned in Florence in 1644 (the cabinet, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is discussed A. Radcliffe and P. Thornton, 'John Evelyn's Cabinet', Connoisseur, April 1978, pp. 254-262). This cabinet is likely to have been 'improved' during George IV's reign by Frances Evelyn (d. 1837), and provided with an antiquarian black frame with 'Elizabethan'-spiralled columns.
Then Table's Antiquarian Inscription
It also seems that, when Mr George Evelyn was aggrandising Wotton in the 1820s, that the timber of this table was mistakenly identified as being made of oak, and so it was given an ancient Wotton estate provenance. It was labelled in gilt letters around its edge: 'TABLE MADE OF OAK CUT DOWN AT WOTTON ABOUT 1590'. The confusion arose from another Wotton table, which was mentioned by Evelyn in Sylva (1662) and identified with an oak tree that his grandfather had cut on the estate: 'And indeed it would be thought fabulous to recount only the extraordinary dimensions of some timber trees grown in that country, and the excessive sizes of these materials, had not mine own hands measured a plank, more than once, of above five feet in breadth, nine and a half in length and six inches thick, all entire and clear, not reckoning the slab. This plank, cut out of a tree felled by my grandfather's order, was made a pastry board, and lay on a frame of solid brickwork at Wotton, in Surrey, where it was so placed before the room was finished about it, or wall built, and yet abated by one foot shorter, to confine it to the intended dimension of the place; for at first it held this breadth, full ten feet and a half in length: by an inscription cut on one of the sides, it had lain there above an hundred years'. To this may be added 'that table of one plank of above seventy-five feet long and a hard broad through the whole length', now to be seen in Dudley Castle Hall, which grew in the park described by Dr. Plott in his Natural History of Staffordshire.
The greater antiquity granted to the present table by the inscription enabled it to rank alongside such impressive tables as King Arthur's chivalric round table (now displayed in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, Hampshire (Country Life, 25 Feb, 1982 p. 465).
We are grateful to Dr. B.D. Cotton for confirming on the basis of micro-analysis, that the table top is of American mahogany.