Exuberant in form and ornament, this pair of card tables is a celebration of Baltimore's renowned Classical style. The gilt-stenciled decoration and rosewood-graining imitate the costlier materials and techniques of carved decoration, ormolu mounts and imported primary woods. Nevertheless, as seen in this pair of tables, such gilding and paintwork could achieve a dramatic effect when executed with accomplishment, sophistication and flare, and no craftsmen are more frequently associated with this style than brothers John (1777-1851) and Hugh (1781-1831) Finlay, artisans of Irish descent who became the leading furniture makers in early nineteenth-century Baltimore. While paint-decorated and gilt-stenciled furniture from Baltimore is invariably ascribed to the Finlay brothers, this pair of tables is notable for its remarkably close affinity to several of the few surviving examples documented to the Finlay shop. As noted by Gregory Weidman and supplemented by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the evidence for the practices for the Finlay shop comprises eight or nine documented commissions (Gregory R. Weidman, "The Furniture of Classical Maryland, 1815-1845," in Gregory R. Weidman and Jennifer F. Goldsborough, Classical Maryland 1815-1845 (Baltimore, 1993), pp. 95-109; Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, "New Discoveries in Baltimore Painted Furniture," Antiques and Fine Art (Spring 2002), pp. 204-209). That these tables bear designs and decorative detailing almost identical or closely related to at least three of these, those for James Wilson (1775-1851) in 1819 and 1825, Humberston Skipwith in 1819 and possibly Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely (1760-1829) in 1822, makes them firmly attributed to this renowned furniture shop.
Based on virtually identical components and decorative devices, this pair of tables can be ascribed to the Finlay shop during the late 1810s and early 1820s, a period during which the shop was run by the younger brother, Hugh Finlay. These tables' closest parallel are a pair of pier tables (fig. 2), made for Hampton, the Baltimore estate of Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely. Both the Hampton pier tables and the card tables offered here feature friezes with crossed torches and winged thunderbolts within wreaths flanked by scrolls, ring-and-barrell pedestals with applied rosettes, X-bases with S-shaped brackets and freestanding rosettes and short sabre legs, all similarly gilt-decorated with foliate designs and motifs from antiquity. Surviving accounts between the Ridgely family and the Finlay workshop include an unspecified 1822 bill in the amount of $188.68. As this amount corresponds to the cost of a pair of marble-top pier tables, Gregory Weidman surmises that the bill may well refer to the pier tables in fig. 2, and provides a possible approximate date of production for the tables offered here (Weidman, p. 105). The same frieze design is also seen on a suite of furniture documented to the Finlay shop in 1819 (fig. 3). Made for Baltimore merchant James Wilson, the set includes a pier table and three chairs, all of which display a central motif of crossed torches and winged thunderbolts within a wreath flanked by one complete scroll with leafy terminus as seen on the pair offered here. The Wilson pier table, along with another 1819 documented card table, made for Humberston Skipwith of Prestwould Plantation in Clarksville, Virginia, establishes the tripartite division of the frieze as a decorative device used by the Finlay shop as early as 1819. The Prestwould table is also the earliest documented instance of the use of the X-shaped base in the Finlay shop and like the pair of card tables made for Alexander Brown (1764-1834), attributed to the Finlay shop in about 1815, features turned Roman legs. As noted by Weidman, the likely prototype for the Baltimore X-shaped base were the Philadelphia card tables designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) for William Waln in 1808. The Waln tables rest upon short sabre legs, as do the tables offered here and those documented to the Finlay shop of the early 1820s, such as the Hampton pier tables in fig. 2 and a center table made for James Wilson in about 1825. These later tables also display S-shaped brackets and gilded motifs of anthemia and thunderbolts, a repertoire of devices repeated virtually to a tee on the tables offered here (Weidman, pp. 95, 99, 103, 104, figs. 117, 121, 126; for the Waln tables, see Sumpter T. Priddy III, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2004), p. 61, fig. 99 and Philadelphia Museum of Art, accession no. 1986-126-1). Based on the documented examples, other forms with similar details have been attributed to the Finlay shop. These include a suite now in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg made for Josiah Bayly (1769-1846) of Cambridge, Maryland with identical freize motifs, albeit in a slightly different format, and a card table with a closely related base (Tara Gleason [Chicirda], "The Bayly Suite of Painted Furniture," Antiques and Fine Art (Spring 2003); Weidman, p. 104, fig. 127).
The Finlay shop was in operation from 1799, when John Finlay began his business as a coach painter, until about 1837. During this time, the brothers dominated the local furniture making industry with their sophisticated interpretations of French Empire and English Regency designs. Revealing both of the shop's stature and its ability to provide customers with fashionable furnishings, Hugh Finlay traveled abroad to gain first-hand knowledge of English and French designs. Upon his return, the shop advertised:
HAVE RECEIVED FROM LONDON, A HANDSOME COLLECTION OF ENGRAVINGS, Many of them in colours with a number of Plaster Figures for Mantle ornaments and Candelabris, selected by Hugh Finlay-who has forwarded by the latest arrivals, a number of Drawings, from furniture in the first houses in Paris and London, which enable them to make the most approved articles in their line. (cited in Weidman, p. 99)
Based on surviving examples both documented and attributed to the Finlay shop, these drawings almost certainly included the designs of Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, whose publication in 1801 of Recueil de Décorations Intérieures popularized the aesthetic of Ancient Egypt. The tables offered here display winged thunderbolts in conjunction with anthemia, a combination that appears with considerable frequency in Percier and Fontaine's designs (fig. 1), and also on two suites of furniture attributed to the Finlay shop from about 1815 (see the pier and card tables made for Alexander Brown (1764-1834) and a card table made for John W. Stump (1792-1762), Weidman, pp. 94, 95, 97, figs. 116, 117, 119). Located at 32 N. Gay Street, the Finlay shop was exceptional for its size, at one time employing a staff of 68 men, women and boys. From 1816, the shop was solely run by Hugh Finlay, who, increasingly in the 1820s, focused upon the export market. Upon Hugh's death in 1831, John resumed proprietorship of the business, which ran until the late 1830s (Weidman, pp. 100, 109; Priddy, pp. 48-49, 63).
Little is known of the history of these tables. Upon their sale in 1993, they were noted to be from the estate of Elinor Merrill (1895-1993), a dealer who specialized in French textiles of the 17th and 18th centuries. She ran her business, Elinor Merrill Antiques, for almost 65 years on Manhattan's Upper East Side and was an advisor to several museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Winterthur Museum and Colonial Williamsburg (Marvine Howe, "Elinor Merrell, 98, Textile Dealer And Museum Consultant, Is Dead," The New York Times (15 July 1993), available online). The tables appear to have been part of her personal collection, their gilded and scrolled decoration probably of particular appeal to a connoisseur of French decorative art.