Tables and Sideboards

Small Tables: as mahogany came into general use and the heavy side-table of the Kent period (Plate 24, Walnut Section) went out of fashion, there was a return to the simpler style of small and occasional table which had been produced in Anne's reign. By the time of Chippendale's 'Director' the constantly changing needs of the upper classes were reflected in endless varieties of tea-, breakfast-, card-, writing- and dressing-tables, as well as the more formal side- and pier-tables. One very characteristic piece of the mid-century was the Chinese tea-table. This had Chinese patterns on the frieze (usually in applied work), on tiny fretted galleries which ran round the edge of the top, and on the straight legs which were fretted or perhaps carved in the solid. Some of these tables had fretted stretchers which crossed diagonally between the legs. Breakfast-tables, made for the convenience of fashion­able people who rose late and had their first meal in their bedrooms, had the same kind of decoration but a different form; they usually included flaps and drawers and a shelf, which was enclosed on three sides by trellis-work in mahogany or brass wire. A restrained French taste showed itself in slender curved legs, sometimes with metal mounts, and curved friezes edged with gadrooning. Plates 32 and 33 are examples of two small tables of about 1760, Plate 32, a table cabinet which could be used for writing, has a Chinese fret gallery at the top.

The cabinet doors, displaying good figuring, are framed in curved stiles (a fashion which dated back some time before 1750), and are finished off with small foliage carving at the corners. Plate 33 is a tea-table with hinged top, and has traces of Gothic work in the legs, which are fluted in ogee section and have a tiny trefoil arch at the top. The delicate carving on the table edge and at the bottom of the frieze, and the curved bracket, as well as the veneers, show the many admirable uses to which mahogany could be put. The Adam period introduced two distinctly new trends. Besides rectangular shapes, others were appearing - oval, semicircular, kidney-shaped and serpentine - with tapering and fluted legs or, as on some contemporary chairs, slender cabriole legs ending on knurl or scroll toes. For the daintier kinds of tables, satinwood and other exotic woods, inlays and gilding, and the choicest figured mahogany were all used, and in some of the best examples the tops were painted by Angelica Kauffmann, Pergolesi and others. On the other hand, for the large rooms of the new town and country houses were produced many long side-tables in mahogany, as illustrated in Plate 31. In this table straight lines were emphasized. The legs are fluted, and taper to plinth feet. Carved decoration appears on the frieze in the classical mould­ing and the typical paterae over the legs and on the small central panel, where they are linked by husks. This kind of table repre­sented the midway design between the dining- and side-table, and from it developed the sideboard, as is indicated below, as a separate piece of furniture.

This development of the sideboard seemed to re-direct the designers5 attention to small tables. Hepplewhite continued on Adam lines, but Sheraton designed a number of extraordinarily delicate tables, some, like his ladies' work-tables, with an ingenious arrangement of drawers and sliding tops, being specially made for carrying from room to room. Neatness was indeed Sheraton's own word for this kind of work: 'These tables should be finished neat, either in satinwood or mahogany'. He also popularized the Pembroke table (though it had been known for some time before), with two semi­circular flaps hinging on a rectangular centre. Usually the legs on his tables were unmistakable for their long, fragile-looking, tapering forms, but on some he showed a radical change in treatment which was to last through the Regency period. He used two solid end uprights, in the old trestle style (Fig. 18), resting on short outward-curving legs; or else a lighter version, with a central stretcher joining the ends.

fig. 18

Plate 34A shows another kind of table which was common in the early nineteenth century. This is the drum or capstan kind, with a deep frieze for drawers (or sometimes this was left open for books) and a central support in tripod style, the legs having the pronounced curve typical of the period. Some of these tables had a solid three-sided pedestal base or monopodium mounted on claw feet. Rosewood or mahogany was usually the wood; some had light-coloured mahogany veneers and classical designs in­laid on the top and pedestal sides, in a contrasting colour.

Tripod Tables:

The application of the tripod construction to tables in general, from about 1800, indicates how popular this feature had become during the previous century. The small tripod tables developed from the candle-stands of the walnut period, but by Chippendale's time they were being used for other purposes, as occasional and tea-tables. Mahogany led to a considerable increase in them as the tops could be made from one piece of wood, and, naturally, they became show-pieces for the various fashion­able enrichments. Plate 346 shows one of the celebrated 'pie-crust' tables, named after the scalloped and slightly raised edge of the top, which is hinged so that it can stand against the wall when not in use. The legs show cabriole treatment with the ball-and-claw feet, but in this case the ball has been modified to increase stability. The knees are decorated with carved acanthus leaves and the upright has been given contrasting forms of mouldings. Other tripod tables had elaborate carving on the top as a border to the edges. On others, again, a small fretted gallery appeared, like those on contemporary Chinese tables. Feet might be hoofs, paws or dolphins (the latter copied from French tables). Later in the century the tops had often fine inlaid work when this fashion revived under Adam. About 1800 the legs had tended to become very delicate in appearance, with definite concave or convex curves finishing on thin, pointed feet. Shera­ton used these on screens as well as tables. But even in Hepplewhite's work the three legs had sometimes been replaced by a solid base, and the extension of this practice, and the many varied leg forms, meant the loss of the original 'pillar and claw' principle.

Dining Tables:

For the better part of two centuries it has been almost a convention to associate mahogany with good dining-room tables. One of the chief uses to which the early imports of San Domingo mahogany were put was to make the spacious tops of these tables. They had remarkable weight and strength and yet the mahogany legs were able to support them without stretchers. This gave clean lines to even the biggest tables and led to many developments in flaps and pivoted legs. In the second half of the eighteenth century large dining tables were made up of two smaller ones which were joined, when necessary, by flaps supported on gate legs. These legs at first either had cabriole form or were turned. The same con­struction continued in the Adam period, but very effective use was made of the size of the tables to give them figured veneers instead of solid mahogany, straight, tapering legs and the classical ornament typified in Plate 31. The side-table in this illustration in every way resembled the contemporary dining table, except that the latter had ten legs, four each for the two end-tables and an extra two for the flaps. The tops were of varied shapes - rectangular, semicircular, or D-shaped - but, naturally, the central flaps were rectangular. Cabinet-makers produced, and in some cases patented, many ingenious devices for extending tops. From about 1800 changes in design became marked. The circular table for dining - an enlarged version of the drum table referred to above - and long tables supported on two or three tripods or similar stands were Regency features. Sheraton also designed a 'universal table' with the old-fashioned draw-leaf top on four tapering legs. 'This', he wrote, 'should be made of particularly good and well-seasoned mahogany, as a great deal depends on its not being liable to cast' - a reminder that dining tables had missed much of the changing fashions in new woods and applied decoration.


The sideboard was a late eighteenth-century development and sprang from the table. It is said to have been origin­ated by Adam, who introduced the custom of standing a classical pedestal mounting an urn at each end of a side-table, of the kind in Plate 31. The obvious advantage of having this storage space so close to the table led to pedestals and tables becoming one unit, and later to the replacement of the pedestals by either smaller cupboards or drawers. The cupboards were used for many purposes; some were lined with metal to keep plates warm, or to hold water or wine-bottles. At first the urns which stood on the pedestals contained the cutlery, but this was transferred to a drawer when urns went out of use. Both Hepplewhite and Sheraton designed light and elegant sideboards. The former is credited with serpentine- and bow-fronted shapes and the latter paid special attention to the brass rail which often stood at the back of the table to hold plates.

The fine proportions of the sideboard in Hepplewhite's time are well demonstrated in the serpentine-fronted example in Plate 36. This has the usual arrangement of legs, four in front and two at the rear, found on longer sideboards, and of a single central drawer flanked by two others (or in some cases single deep ones) on each side. The central arch (an important feature on these sideboards) has delicate inlay work, like the drawer fronts and apron piece, and there is also line inlay on the legs. The curving front makes a very effective display of figuring. So does the serpentine, break-front example in Plate 35, which is typical of the smaller Sheraton sideboard.

It has two side cupboards, a sharper curve to the arch, and stringing decoration. The four legs on this piece are turned and reeded, a style for which Sheraton showed a pre­ference in his later work (and which also appeared on his chairs). In the Regency period there was a return to the pedestal type of the early sideboards. Other versions discarded the side drawers or cupboards altogether and replaced them with two or four legs, often carved in animal forms. The deepening of the table frieze, and the elabora­tion of the brass gallery in classical designs on these pieces deprived them of the graceful symmetry of previous examples.

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