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An Important Classical Gilt and Paint Decorated Games Table, Attributed to John and Hugh Finlay, Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1815


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The following is the text of an extensive report on this piece done by Philip Zimmerman, Ph.D. The full report, including footnotes and images, is available upon request.

An Important Baltimore Painted Card Table
Philip D. Zimmerman, Ph.D. - Consulting Services                                                                          
1425 Valley Road / Lancaster, Pennsylvania  17603 . (717) 390-9818 . Philip.Zimmerman@fandm.edu     

Summary  

This report addresses a painted Classical card table made in Baltimore, probably in the 1820s.  It identifies other members of the suite to which the card table belongs, and it determines condition and authenticity through detailed physical examination.  X-radiography and finish microanalysis confirm that the card table has not undergone any significant alterations to either its structure or painted decoration and survives intact with only normal wear and tear.

Background

The Baltimore painted card table (Fig. 1) is published as number 46 in William V. Elder III, Baltimore Painted Furniture, 1800-1840 (Baltimore, Md.:  Baltimore Museum of Art, 1972).  The catalogue lists Peter Hill as owner.  Other previous owners include F. J. Carey III and Judith Hollander.  No family history of ownership survives.  Brass casters and adjoining wood legs on the Weiss card table have chiseled Roman numerals from IIII to VII, indicating this particular table is from IIII to VII, indicating that this particular table is probably the second of a pair—the other having caster numbers I, II, III, and numberless (Fig. 2).

Painted decoration links the card table to a window seat at the St. Louis Art Museum and to a set of six side chairs and two armchairs in various collections (Figs 3-5).  The decoration is so particular on all of the pieces of furniture that they all must have constituted a single parlor suite, although no supportive written evidence has come to light.  Several family histories accompany the seating, indicating that it had been divided among different owners as it descended through generations, or the suite had been sold out of the original family at an early date.  Genealogical research has not been undertaken to look for a common name among descendents.

The pair of armchairs at the Missouri Historical Society (acc. no. 1972.84) was given in 1972 by the Mullanphys family of St. Louis (Fig. 5).  A pair of side chairs was acquired by Winterthur in 1992 (acc. no. 92.29.1-.2) from Paul and Margaret du Vivier (granddaughter of Isaac Trimble, who listed in the Sotheby’s provenance below) (Fig. 6-7).  Another pair of side chairs was bequeathed to the Maryland Historical Society in 2005 by William Pinkney Carton, a grandson of Joseph (1850-1915) and Eugenia R. Whyte (1858-1949) of Baltimore, who owned the chairs when they were published in 1937.[i]  The third pair of side chairs was auctioned at Sotheby’s, Important Americana on January 23, 2010, as lots 561 and 562.  The provenance listed in that catalogue is as follows:
  • Sally Scott Lloyd (1834-1913) and David Churchman Trimble (1832-before 1900) at Wye Heights, Talbot County, Maryland.
  • To their son, Dr. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble (1860-1908), who married Margaret E. Jones (1865-1954) at their home located at 8 West Madison Street in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • To their granddaughter, Alison Arden DeRopp (1925-2006) of Ruxton, Maryland.
  • Thence by descent to the current owner.
The on-line Sotheby’s catalogue description states that the chairs were purchased by Sally and David Trimble at “an unspecified date.”  Given their ages, this transaction likely was not made before the 1850s, when the Trimbles reached their majority.

Design 

The card table has a rectangular table frame and top above a crossed lyre-like base.  Stacked rings forming four colonnettes support the swivel top, and nine brass rods represent lyre strings.  Four leg extensions project from the lapped curved rails of the base.  The original cast brass casters at each foot are among the most ornate known (Fig. Figure 8.  Weiss card table caster with rosette from other side.   8).  They have reverse swirls along the sides.  A separately cast rosette, screwed into the swirl, hides the iron screw heads that hold the caster in place (with two more screws in a brass tang along the underside of the leg).  In almost all other casters of this period, the iron screw heads are visible.   Painted decoration conforms in many respects to the large body of furniture made in Baltimore from shortly after 1800 to the 1830s.  Painting styles are severely Classical and employ a distinct archeologically derived decorative vocabulary and palette.  The Weiss card table has freehand and stenciled gilt decoration on a dark green or mustard yellow ground with dark red highlights.  The anthemion scroll decoration has been likened to plate 56 in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (London 1793), but the resemblance is general only.  In composition, the table frame has a central horizontal panel flanked by square panels, related in composition to a pair of card tables, part of a large suite of seating and tables that belonged to the Alexander Brown family of Baltimore (Fig. 9).  The Patterson family pair of card tables (and four side chairs) also uses this organization (Fig. 10).[i]  The long, sheathed sword across the front of the table frame recalls the long spiral motifs on the ends of the Weiss card table (Fig. 11).  The Weiss table is unusual in that the back of the table frame is ornamented as fully as the front, inviting the table to be viewed in the round.   

All other Baltimore card tables related to the Weiss example have central pillars instead of four colonnettes.  None uses a large lyre motif.  The stacked-ring design forming the colonnettes is very unusual in early-nineteenth-century American furniture.  It occurs on the card table designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for William Waln of Philadelphia and made about 1811 (Fig. 12).  That card table, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has crossed rails, lapped in the center, a square top and frame, and archeologically derived Classical decoration executed in paint and gilding.  Its general similarities to the Weiss table do not help establish a date of fabrication nor do design or construction similarities suggest any specific commonalities.  

Prudent historical analysis suggests that the Weiss card table was not made before 1815 at the earliest.  The fixed base of this card table (in contrast to one with a swing leg or legs to support the hinged top) requires an off-center swivel top that maintains the same center of gravity whether opened or closed.  The earliest evidence of such a swivel-top card table in America is the afore-mentioned 1811 table.  That date conforms to the first mention of swivel-top card tables in London furniture-makers’ price books.  No American price books mention the feature until about 1815, when evidence of this mechanism begins to accumulate.[ii]  Lyre bases also began to appear at mid-decade.  Their use in card tables required the swivel top, but other table forms, such as breakfast tables, could have incorporated lyre shapes at an earlier date but were not.[iii]  

Of the several suites and individual furniture survivals of Classically decorated Baltimore furniture, very few have histories of ownership or other documentation that establishes when they were made.  Similarly, evidence identifying the work of furniture decorators—such as John and Hugh Finlay and John Barnhart, as well as more than a dozen lesser-known craftsmen—is almost non-existent.  The present antiques market and related scholarship tends to attribute zealously and to date work at the earliest time possible.[iv]  In reality, the limited, elite market for refined Classical furniture probably extended over many years.  Certainly, a suite of six chairs (four at the Baltimore Museum of Art, acc. no. 25.11; two at the Moses Myers House, Norfolk, Va., acc. no. 81-37) and a pier table (at the Moses Myers House, Norfolk, Va., acc. no. 81.36) bearing a likeness of the Marquis de Lafayette were not made before his visit to Baltimore in October 1824 (Fig. 13).[v]  All things considered, the Weiss card table probably dates from as early as 1815, but more likely 1820, to the late 1820s.

Physical Examination and Evaluation  

Most of the card table is made of tulip poplar, the outside or presentation surfaces of which are completely painted.  The two top leaves, also painted on all surfaces, are each made of solid mahogany boards.  Several other Baltimore painted card tables have mahogany tops, including the privately owned Brown pair, a single card table decorated with rosewood graining at the Dallas Art Museum, and two with solid tops hinged to tulip poplar fixed leaves at the Baltimore Museum of Art (acc. nos. 60.45 and 1980.168).[i]  The Patterson card table reportedly has a mahogany leaf that is entirely painted, but this information is not published.  A pair of card tables at Winterthur has mahogany veneers on tulip poplar (acc. no. 57.1072).[ii]  Unlike the Weiss and Dallas Art Museum card tables, the mahogany top surfaces of the other tables are partially or entirely unpainted.  The left rear corner of the fixed top leaf of the Weiss card table shows a narrow wedged-shaped repair about 6 inches long (Fig. 15).  

The hinged top leaves swivel to reveal a tray lined in old green baize.  The swivel bolt and attachment plate for the folding top is modern.  Screw hole evidence indicates that it is the third.  The brass hinges on the top leaves appear to be original.  The grayish-white paint on the underside of the bottom leaf appears to have been scraped for some reason while still wet.  This paint has not been microanalyzed.  

The table frame attaches to four turned colonnettes that are round-tenoned into two front-to-back braces dovetailed into the undersides of the front and back frame rails (Fig. 15).  Three dovetail mortises on each rail have been filled with tulip poplar plugs that have oxidized to a similar degree as the tulip poplar rails.  Dovetails such as these were commonly cut for wide planks to which center pillars were attached.  The absence of both an oxidation pattern on the original tray bottom immediately above where such a plank would have been and any disturbances in the edges of the filled dovetails where a plank might have been removed confirm that these dovetails represent a furniture-maker’s error.  This error suggests that whoever was constructing the frame assumed it would attach to a central pillar, which is overwhelmingly the standard construction of Baltimore card tables of this time period.

Removal of two of the dovetail mortise plugs (in the center on each side) reveals two small holes cut into the bottoms of each excavated dovetail mortise (Fig. 16).  These holes appear to have been made by center-screw drill bits used to begin excavation.  Once the drilled holes were made, the furniture-maker shaped the mortise with chisels.   Unevenness and other evidence along the edges of the front-to-back brace dovetails indicate that the braces have been removed from the table frame (Fig. 17).   Given that the card table frame is decorated on all four sides, the table frame had been removed from the base at least twice, presumably to match better long side paint decoration to the front. 

One disassembly occurred by removing the dovetailed cross braces from the frame and reversing them.  Hammer marks on the tops of the braces themselves, viewed by removal of the tray bottom board, indicate that the braces had also been removed from the round tenons of the colonnettes, which allowed the table frame to be reversed in that way.    Crossed, or X, braces made of tulip poplar attach to the insides of the front-to-back braces and provide the top anchor for the nine brass lyre rods (Fig. 18).  These X braces fluoresce differently under ultraviolet light than the front-to-back braces.  They are a slightly different color, visible in natural light, than the adjoining front-to-back braces.  

Some surfaces have a glue-like residue on them, and the screw pockets for attaching them to the front-to-back braces have been painted a dark color, presumably to mask newer-cut wood.  In fact, the X braces are replacements.  Removal of the X braces reveals unanswered nail holes covered by the ends of the braces (Fig. 19).  Two original nail holes for the previous X braces lie on the outside of one brace, indicating that it is now reversed from its original position.  The brass lyre rods are held in place by holes drilled into the card table base and into the undersides of the X braces.  The holes in the X braces are not drilled through.  Barely visible shallow drilled holes in the underside of the tray indicate that the earlier X braces had holes for the lyre rods drilled completely through (Fig. 20).  This evidence strongly suggests that the earlier X braces were materially the same configuration as the present X braces.  Only a very faint difference in oxidation on the underside of the tray where the present X braces cover suggest the possibility that the original X braces were not positioned snug against the underside of the tray but allowed some air to circulate and partially oxidize that board.  

The reason or reasons for replacing the original X braces are speculative, especially given that no surrounding table parts exhibit evidence of damage or trauma.  It is possible that the original lyre rods were made of painted wood.  New York-made lyre back chairs of this vintage, for example, have either wood or brass rods.  If the Baltimore card table rods were made of wood, it is possible that some were damaged.  Rather than repairing them, the owner at that time may have had all of them removed until a later time when they were restored.  Whatever the circumstances, the center hole in the base appears to have the remnants of a wooden rod visible in an X-radiograph.  

Removal of the tray bottom board reveals the round tenons of the colonnettes mortised through the front-to-back braces (see Fig. 17).  The round tenons are the same diameter as those set into the base (as determined by X-radiographs).  Each round tenon top has a narrow wedge of darker wood color driven into it.  Three parallel lines are scratched into the top of the front-to-back braces at each of the four round-tenon sites.  The lines are angled to conform to the angle of the base feet.  Their maximum width represents the thickness of the base.  Glue residue appears on the top surface of the braces and on the bottom of the tray.  Several rectangular nail holes penetrate the tray bottom.  Nails now removed were once driven through the tray bottom into the two cross braces.    

X-radiography  

Three X-radiographs were taken on December 30, 2010 (Figs. 21-23).   X-radiograph 1 shows one colonnette from the ball at the top to the upper part of the lyre-shaped base.  One brass rod is also visible.  The X-ray shows a long (round) tenon set into a mortise cut into the base with a centering bit.  Four cut nails hold the wood cap between the colonnette and the top of the base.  There are no other nail holes that might suggest the cap was either not original or had been removed and reset.  At the top of the colonnette, the round ball appears to be integral with the ring-turned column, meaning that most of the colonnette had to have been turned to a substantially smaller diameter to leave wood for the larger balls.  

X-radiograph 2 shows the center of the base and all nine wires.  It shows several cut nails holding the wood cap in place.  Two nail fragments appear in the center where the base legs are lapped.  The fragment edges are uneven suggesting that they are early rather than modern.  There is no evidence that the base was ever disassembled. 
 
X-radiograph 3 captures the top of the ball and colonnette.  It shows a round tenon leading into the cross brace above.  There are no extraneous nail holes or similar evidence.   A degree of raggedness around the tenon collar atop the ball may illustrate later re-gessoing, probably when the cross brace had been removed. 

Paint Analysis  

Microscopic paint analysis exposes to view the layers of paint (“stratigraphy”) that form a paint surface.  To accomplish this, the analyst takes a small sample of paint bound onto the wood, encases it in clear polyester casting resin, cuts the sample to show the layering, and then examines it under a microscope using natural light or light of other wave lengths.  The objective of finish analyses of this card table was to determine whether all of the grounds (namely gesso), pigments, and gilding were consistent from card-table part to card-table part.  Consistency in the paint layers would establish that the various parts were made at the same time.  

Five microscopic cross sections were taken and analyzed by Michael Podmaniczky in consultation with Richard Wolbers in January 2011.  The cross sections, reproduced in the Appendix, show consistency between and among all of the table parts:  specifically the top, the table frame (called “apron” in image no. 2 and 3), the underside of a pad between a colonnette and the curved base, and the side of a foot.  Samples from the top and the foot side show layers of later paint on top of the original layers.  These paint in-filling campaigns are evident by close inspection by eye under normal light without magnification.  In-filling campaigns have not been plotted on the surfaces of the card table, but they do not affect the key decorative areas.

Philip D. Zimmerman, Ph.D. - Consulting Services  


Two chairs of matching decoration recently sold in a Sotheby's January 22nd, 2010 Americana Sale for $196,000 each.

Height: 28 1/2 in.
Width: 36 in.
Depth: 17 3/4 in.
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