Only a small number of craftsmen in colonial America were capable of producing furniture that achieved the excellence of design and carving that is embodied in the scallop-top mahogany tea table. With multiple surfaces and intricate ornamentation, these tables were the ultimate challenge for a carver. Of those who were able to meet this challenge, few created masterpieces that have survived. The Eyre-family table, made around 1770, represents a distinctive interpretation of the fully evolved rococo as it developed in Philadelphia. The quality of the carving and overall aesthetic reveals the influence of English and French designs and English-trained carvers who worked in conjunction with the taste of their patrons to create an indigenous form of the rococo in America.
With its ten-segment scalloped top, carved pillar, compressed ball shaft, knees, and legs, it incorporates nearly every design option available to a consumer. As each embellishment required a premium, tea tables were labelled by contemporaries, "pillar-and-claw" or "scollp'd top & carved pillar," accordingly. While many of these elements were standard, their integration here is exceptional. Form and decoration are united and the balanced aesthetic is evident throughout; each of the ten intervals are made up of alternating straight lines and ogee curves; the fluted architectural quality of the shaft is enlivened by the scrolling leafage on the compressed ball beneath, and the dense punch-decorated ribbon-and-flower carved band at the base of the shaft is a delicate transition to the expanding cabriole legs; the solidity of the legs in turn, are lightened by the dynamic flow of the carved knees and the continous sweep of the thin ankles that follow to angular talons then give motion to the flat round balls that they grasp.
The carver of this table was almost certainly an immigrant carver. Nearly half of the approximately twenty-known carvers in Philadelphia working between 1750 and 1793 were immigrants and these men created almost all of the ornamental carving of the period (Heckscher and Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York, 1992), p.182). Among this select group were the carvers of the tea tables illustrated in figs. 2-5. The carvers of these tables are thought to be Hercules Courtenay (1744?-1784), James Reynolds (1736-1794), and Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez (w.1762-1783).
While the identity of its carver is unknown at present, the table offered here features carved elements similar to those found on an important group of side chairs associated with the Philadelphia merchant, David Deshler (1711-1792). Deshler, who immigrated from Baden, Germany in 1733 became a partner in his uncle's mercantile business, a successful paint and hardware merchant in his own right and consequently, became a major patron of Philadelphia's best craftsmen. One chair is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig 7), another inscribed "Deshler" in a seat rail, sold in these Rooms, October 18, 1986, lot 512, and two further chairs sold at Sotheby's New York, June 26, 1986, lot 133. All have a central cartouche comprised of double C-scrolls, enclosed by stylized acanthus clasps, and are carved with a rounded three-lobed bell-flower with trailing beads, in the manner of the carving on the Eyre-family table (for more on Deshler see Fanelli, "The Deshler-Morris House," Antiques (August 1983), p.284-289).
Another piece that may have been carved by the "Deshler carver" is an easy chair, circa 1770 in the Dietrich American Foundation, on Deposit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (figure 6). The knees of this chair are carved with a similarly executed design. The carving differs in that the chair bears two bell flowers trailing beneath the cartouche; nevertheless, the composition is essentially the same. Several tables incorporate carved patterns similar to that on the knees of the table offered here. The Drinker family card table, also in the Philadelphia Museum of Art bears many of the same elements (Hornor, Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture (Washington D.C., reprint, 1977), pl.236). Both pieces are thought to have descended in the immediate or extended family of David Deshler (for a chest-on-chest made for Deshler by Thomas Affleck, see fig.3 accompanying the note for lot 614).
THE EYRE FAMILY OF PHILADELPHIA
The Eyre brothers were amongst Philadelphia's most prominent citizens in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Extensive family geneology records are published on the various branches of this illustrious family and nearly every account commences with the story of the Eyre family's earliest traceable ancestor, a follower of William the Conqueror, Truelove. The legend holds that when Duke William (later King William II) fell from his horse in the Battle of Hastings (1066 AD), it was Truelove who rehorsed him. The grateful Duke rewarded his savior with land in Derby and is thought to have renamed him by saying: "Thou shalt hereafter (instead of Truelove) be called Aire [or Eyre], because thou has given me the air I breathe."
George Eyre II (1663-1761) set sail for Philadelphia in 1727. Having studied for the Ministry, he had been prepared to take orders in the Church of England but eventually became a land surveyor. After losing his first wife, George relocated to Burlington, New Jersey when he married Rebecca Shreve, the daughter of a Quaker family from that town. George Eyre had many children, most of whom returned to Philadelphia where they became prominent citizens after the Revolution. Several sons established a shipbuilding enterprise noted all over America for commissions by Congress to build ships for the Continental Navy. They were well-known civic figures, and one son Manuel Eyre, was a delegate to the Provincial Convention on January 23, 1775. According to the family tradition, this table was owned first by George's son Nathan Eyre and then passed it to his son Joseph, who in turn left it to his son Edward.
Edward Eyre, a Senior Executive in the Pennsylvania Railroad, was one of the founders of the Merion Cricket Club, and active in St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Figure 1 shows the tea table within the Victorian setting of Edward's house, at Torresdale, Philadelphia. An important social figure in the city, Edward developed tuberculosis in the 1880s and, for the benefit of his health, moved with his family to Colorado. With the expense of moving carried by the Railroad, he was able to take many family heirlooms including this table along. In Colorado Springs, he again became a prominent civic figure, founding the Sheyenne Mountain Club and renewed his ties with other Philadelphians who had moved to the area for similar reasons. Edward's daughter Helen inherited the table who subsequently left it to her nephew Duncan, the last family member to own the chair.