The exceptional proportions and carving exhibited on this tea table demonstrate the highest level of achievement in Philadelphia Rococo furniture. The carving exhibits a refinement and clarity rarely matched by even the most celebrated examples from Philadelphia shops and is notable for the restrained, fluid drawing of the design and the depth of the carving, combining in unusually strong passages of ornament. Physical and documentary evidence suggest that this table was made in the shop of Benjamin Randolph.
Benjamin Randolph was probably the most prominent of Philadelphia's furniture-makers during this period, and his shop was among the few capable of producing such a table (see Heckscher, American Rococo 1750-1775 (New York, 1992), p. 183). He counted among his clientele many of the most prominent citizens of Philadelphia including John Cadwalader, Vincent Loockerman, John Dickinson, Michael Gratz, Samuel Fisher, and John Macpherson, as well as Clement Biddle. The account book from Randolph's shop for the years 1768-1786 records Biddle's purchase: "Clemment Biddle 6 March 1775 To Shop 5/../.." The "contra" column indicates that Biddle paid cash for his purchase. While the specific nature of his purchase is not indicated, his payment is in accordance with the price of an elaborate tea table. The 1772 Philadelphia manuscript "Prices of Cabinet and Chair(work)" indicates that such tables with "clawfoot" and "leaves on the knees" cost four pounds, with an additional charge for fluting the pillar and scalloping the top (see Martin Weil, "A Cabinetmaker's Price Book," in Ian Quimby, ed., American Furniture and its Makers, Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 13 (Chicago, 1979), pp. 175-192). Furthermore, in 1769, James Gillingham charged five pounds for making "1 Mahogy. Tea Table scolloped Claw feet & leaves on knees" (Gillingham, "Benjamin Lehman, A Germantown Cabinet-Maker," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 54 (1930), fig. 2, cited in Heckscher, p. 196), confirming that this price is in keeping with what the present table would have cost.
In the months that followed his marriage to the wealthy Rhode Island heiress Rebekah Cornell (d. 1831), Biddle was likely furnishing or re-furnishing their home. In September 1774 Biddle also purchased a mahogany sofa from the cabinetmaker David Evans for five pounds ("Excerpts from the Day-Books of David Evans, Cabinetmaker, Philadelphia, 1774-1811," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. XXVII, p. 49). Among the other clients of Randolph's shop during 1775 were Thomas Jefferson, for whom he made the lap desk upon which the Declaration of Independence was written, and George Washington. Biddle was a close friend of Washington, and even offered his guidance on some of Washington's purchases. Some years later, Washington wrote to Biddle "I will thank you to pay Samuel Powell Esq. for a chair which he was so good as to procure for me as a pattern" ("Correspondence of Clement Biddle," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography vol. 42, 1918, pp. 310-343 ).
Among the workmen employed by Randolph's shop were the London-trained carvers Hercules Courtenay and John Pollard, both of whom were capable of carving the rococo ornaments of the table offered here. It seems that Pollard was more active during the period of Clement Biddle's purchase, as Courtenay had established his own shop some years earlier (see Beckerdite, "Philadelphia Carving Shops Part III: Hercules Courtenay and his school," Antiques (May 1987), p. 1046). Randolph's account book records payments to the carver John Pollard between September, 1774 and September, 1775. While another unknown carver could have been responsible for embellishing this table, the little-known John Pollard is certainly a candidate.
Of the surviving examples that incorporate this full range of elements, the carved shaft of this table most closely resembles that of the Robb-Logan family table, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see figs. 1, 3). Closely comparable in conception and execution, both tables have virtually identical ovolo and acanthus carved compressed balls. Exceptional is the delicate draping of the carving over the top half of the compressed ball, with the lower half of the ball left cleanly turned. This arrangement embodies the pedestals with lightness, as the carving is floated by this smooth surface and the undercut turning of the ring below the ball. The delicately curled ends of the acanthus leaves suggests the raised bead turning that often embellishes less highly carved examples.
Among the other tea tables related in design and execution is a table made for the Gratz family, circa 1769, now in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation (see Rodriquez Roque, American Furniture at Chipstone (Madison, Wisconsin, 1984), no. 146). This table incorporates the same number of flutes in the column, a compressed ball with draped carving, and a flower and rope carved passage below the concave turned ball support in keeping with the present table. Michael Gratz was also a patron of the shop of Benjamin Randolph (Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 111). Other related tables include one at Winterthur (see Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 380) and the Eyre family tea table sold in these Rooms, 16 January 1999k, lot 592. A table closely related to the Robb table but with slightly different carving on the compressed ball in also in the collection of the Winterthur Museum (see Downs, nos. 378 and 379).
The carver of the table offered here was likely responsible for the carving on the celebrated Deschler family suite of furniture as well. The carving on the knees of the Deschler easy chair (fig. 2) illustrates this parallel both in drawing and in execution, with deeply carved and precisely delineated rococo flourishes above a descending row of bell flowers. In both cases, the carving makes limited use of surface veining on the stylized leaves, depending instead on depth of carving on the overall design for its visual statement. The Deschler family card table (see Hornor, Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture (Washington D.C., 1935), pl. 236) exhibits similar knee carving that also includes a looping figure-eight motif above the bell flower carving, in keeping with the table presently offered. The descending bellflower motif has precedents in some earlier Philadelphia tea tables, including a piecrust table in the collections of the U. S. Department of State (see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State (New York, 1991), p. 81) and the Dickinson family tray-top tea table at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (see Lindsey, Worldly Goods (Philadelphia, 1999), cat. no. 87).
Whomever the maker of the table was, he chose an exceptional cut of wood for the top. Cut from an enormous tree, the wood was likely chosen for the swirling, curled grain that brings light to the surface of the table. Because the board was nearly face-sawn from the log, the top has shrunk slightly more than usual, about three-quarters of an inch. This shrinkage is indicated by the batons on the underside of the top, which have had the screws reset in accordance with this amount of movement. The turner attached this heavy board to a smaller rectangular board, rather than a turner's cross, which was screwed to the lathe to facilitate its turning. The eight-segment, piecrust border was then carved from the edge. The deep shaping of the bottom of the standard adds lift to the table, and necessitated additional finishing to the spider on the underside to disguise it from view.
The history of this remarkable table traces through some of Philadelphia's most prominent families. From a Quaker family, Biddle was a patriot, successful merchant, and Revolutionary soldier. He, together with General John Cadwalader and other merchants, signed the 1765 Non-Importation Act, an important catalyst for the local production of luxury goods. In accordance with this act, Biddle and the other signers patronized local craftsmen for the opulent furnishings in their homes, rather than the shops of London. In 1776 Biddle was appointed quartermaster-general for the militia of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and was highly regarded as a soldier and patriot. While his and the subsequent wills and inventories are not specific regarding furnishings, the inventory of Jonathan Williams Biddle, Clement's grandson, lists 2 tables valued at ten pounds, perhaps referring in part to the table offered here. From Jonathan Williams Biddle the table likely passed to his daughter Christine, who married Richard McCall Cadwalader, great-grandfather of the current owner.