9978 A VERY RARE CHARLES II CARVED OAK RECTANGULAR CENTER TABLE WITH GEOMETRIC PARQUETRY TOP English. Circa 1685. Measurements: Height: 31″ (79 cm) Width: 42 1/2″ (109 cm) Depth: 28 1/2″ (73 cm)
Of oak. The complex geometric parquetry top above a further inlaid conforming cavetto frieze. The four waisted carved supports joined by a carved x-form stretcher, terminating in paw feet, and raised upon leather castors.
Beckley Park, Oxfordshire and thence by family descent.
This table is one of a small group of pieces associated with an elite group of joiners working in the City of London at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The majority of work in this style, which combines parquetry of oak veneers with fine carving, was executed as fixed joinery rather than moveable furniture. Much of it survives in London’s parish churches, as many were rebuilt in the decades following the Great Fire of 1666, but the finest work is in St. Paul’s Cathedral, reconstructed to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1710) between 1675 and 1710. Other examples include the pulpits of St. Olave, All Hallows by the Tower (figure 1), St. Margaret Lothbury, and St. Clement Danes, all in London.
Similar work can be found outside London in a number of great interiors, particularly at Burghley House, Lincolnshire, and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. The woodwork in both of these was executed by London joiners. The State Dining Room at Chatsworth, in particular, has geometric parquetry paneling and carving of outstanding quality (figure 2). There are also parallels with the interior joinery of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities. The reredos in the chapel of Trinity College, Oxford (completed 1694), is particularly fine, with parquetry executed not in oak but American red cedar (figure 3).
Notably, in all the above-mentioned instances, the parquetry panels are bordered with elaborate carved “frames” by, or in the manner of, Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721). Gibbons was an English sculptor and woodcarver famed for his decorative wooden garlands made up of intricately carved still-life elements, and it is a testament to the quality of the panels that they are combined with such important carvings.
In contrast to the abundance of fixed joinery, moveable furniture in this style is exceedingly rare. It differs from contemporary cabinetmakers’ work in being executed in oak rather than walnut or other more expensive woods, and relying for its effect on the geometric arrangement of oak veneers. The veneers are aligned to maximize the directional emphasis created by the coarse grain of the oak; they are knife-cut and laid straight-edged, rather than sawn in natural shapes as with floral marquetry. The construction of the frame is also typical of joiner’s work, relying primarily on pegged mortise and tenon joints and a minimum of glue.
Unlike most tables of this size, this piece is not a side table but a center table, with molding and decoration on all sides. The lower part of the table, with its double-curved legs and high X-stretcher or cross-brace, has parallels with contemporary Dutch tables and stands for cabinets. It derives from the fleshy “auricular” style of the mid-seventeenth century, first developed by silversmiths and later adapted for picture frames, tables and other furniture.1
Figure 4 depicts an elaborately carved Dutch side table of circa 1660 in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, which embodies these undulating, lobed characteristics. It was a style promoted in England by (among others) Sir Christopher Wren; a late auricular altar table designed by Wren and made in 1696 by the joiner John Smallwell (fl. 1668–c. 1710) survives in St. Dunstan’s Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral2 (figure. 5). On the present table, auricular details embellish the backs of the legs, but most of the carving is in the conventional high baroque style of the late-seventeenth century, dominated by overlapping leaves and scrolling foliage. The legs terminate in what London furniture-makers called “lyon’s feet.”
Although the lower part of the legs is heavily patinated, there is some residual gilding. This parallels the use of gilding to highlight carved decoration on doorcases, cornices and other architectural components of contemporary interiors.
The combination of a late-auricular style with high quality parquetry, carving and joinery strongly suggests a London maker. At least two other pieces in this group are known, both having passed through the hands of the late Ronald Lee, famed for his connoisseurship and scholarly approach to antique dealing. One, a fall-front scriptor, is known only from an old black-and-white photograph. The other, a cabinet, remained in Lee’s possession and was sold after his death at Sotheby’s London in 20013 (figure 6) and is now in a private collection.
The present table formerly belonged to the collection of Beckley Park, a stately home located near the village of Beckley, in Oxfordshire, England, built in 1540 by Lord Williams of Thames, for use as a hunting lodge. From 1657 to the early-twentieth century the house was part of the possessions of the successive Earls of Abingdon, at times occupied by their tenant farmers. Today it is the headquarters of the Beckley Foundation and the home of Amanda Feilding and her husband, James Charteris, 13th Earl of Wemyss.
We are grateful to Adam Bowett for compiling this research.
1. Reinier Barsen, Furniture in Holland’s Golden Age (Rijksmuseum/Nieuw Amsterdam: Amsterdam, 2007), figs. 112-115.
2. St Paul’s Cathedral, London, object number 8826; Wren Society, Vol.15, p.18. Smallwell became master of the Joiner’s Company in 1705.
3. Sotheby’s London, 28 November 2001, Lot 40.