Amongst the most important pieces of furniture to survive from Colonial America, this tea table stands at the apogee of Philadelphia Rococo craftsmanship in addition to serving as a masterpiece for the tilt-top tea table form. It is a rare document of the "Garvan carver," the finest native carver working in America during the eighteenth century. It represents his accomplished early work of the 1750s and serves as a veritable palette for his carving excellence and mastery of design.
In 1935, William MacPherson Hornor aptly published this table as "The Acme of Perfection in American Piecrust Tables" in Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture and further praised its "Magnificent Base" as well as the "Marked Originality Obtained by the Cartouch Knee Carving, and Further Richness Gained by the Striking Application of Acanthus Leaves Bound by Drapery on the Vase Shaped Bulb." Since that time, for over seventy years, this table has remained in the family of its original owners and has never been exhibited or again published. Consequently, this table has become famous among American furniture connoisseurs as the "Acme of Perfection" with its whereabouts a mystery until the present time.
Adding to this table's importance is its history of descent in the prominent McMichael-Tilghman family of Philadelphia to the present owners. In an undated inventory compiled by Benjamin Tilghman III (1890-1953), a previous owner and grandfather of the present owners, this table is itemized as number "18. Pie-crust table. American c. 1750. Chippendale style. Bulb-shaped pedestal with acanthus leaf carving. (Museum.) Came from my mother's family, the McMichaels. A very rare and valuable piece of furniture."1 Benjamin Tilghman inherited the table from his mother, Mary Carstairs McMichael Tilghman (1865-1928), who in turn inherited it from her mother, Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael (1841-1914).2 Meta undoubtedly received the table from her mother Anna Baynton Andrews Shaw (1811-1882/3), who itemized numerous fine furnishings in the codicil to her will including the "Baynton Table" and "Silver Table Scraper."3 As she married an Irish immigrant, this table most certainly came through her family. An analysis of family genealogy and probate records for both branches of her family indicates four possible original owners. Two of these, John Baytnon (1726-1773) and James Abercrombie (1710-1761), were distinguished citizens in Philadelphia during the mid-eighteenth century. A mariner, General Abercrombie married Margaret Bennett (1727-1803) in 1753 and died in 1761 while serving as Commander-in-Chief in North America of the King's Forces. He left a moderate estate of a £1,000 bequest to his wife and the remainder to his son James with no itemization of property or furniture.4
John Baynton, the likely candidate for original owner of this table, was a very successful merchant and partner of Samuel Wharton (1732-1800) in the trading company Baynton and Wharton (later Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan). He also served as a Provincial Commissioner, Member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and Trustee of the Province of Pennsylvania. On December 17, 1747, he married Elizabeth Chevalier (b. 1726), daughter of the merchant Peter Chevalier. A prosperous businessman by the early 1750s, John Baynton was living by 1754 in a house located on Front Street at Dock Street valued at £1,000 with household furnishings valued at £350.5 His will of 1776 indicates a sizable estate and includes a £10,000 and multiple £5,000 bequests to his wife and 12 living children. The inventory of his estate itemizes significant furnishings such as a mahogany chest of drawers and matching dressing table valued at £20, a set of mahogany chairs valued at £6-10-0, and a "Japan Waiter" valued at £6-7-6, along with numerous other pieces of mahogany and walnut furniture, silver, carpets, books, and the like.6 This table was presumably commissioned in the early 1750s for that house and may refer to the "Mahogany Tea Table" itemized in his inventory in the back parlor at the value of £1-10-0. It appears to have descended along maternal lines through five successive generations of the Abercrombie, Andrews, McMichael, and Tilghman branches of the family to Mary Carstairs McMichael Tilghman, and next to her son, Benjamin Chew Tilghman, the great-great-great-great grandson of John Baynton. This table remains the property of his family today, over 250 years after it was commissioned.
Although anonymous and so-named for his exceptional carving on a high chest in the Garvan Collection at Yale University, the Garvan carver's masterful work is easily distinguished from his counterparts by its exquisite quality, lushness and fluidity (see figure 1).7 True to the Rococo idiom, he favored leaves, vines, shells and flowers for his vocabulary, which he articulated as if in motion with leaf tips appearing to flip back on themselves (see figs. 2 and 3). He created rich effects of volume and shading through the use of detail cuts, particularly turned-over ends on the long sinuous leaves and clusters of parallel, straight cuts to shade the ends of the leaves. He consistently achieved an end result of expert carving within a well-integrated scheme.
What little is known about him was first published after one of his masterpieces, the celebrated Thomas Willing card table, was sold in these rooms for the record price of $1,045,000.8 From the splendid legacy of his work, it has been surmised that the Garvan carver was first working in Philadelphia in the early 1750s as a young man in his early 20s learning his craft. He appears to have worked for several cabinet shops until around 1758, when began working for what appears to have been the largest and most successful cabinet shop in Philadelphia. His latest known works in his most fully developed style date to the 1760s and he appeared to have collaborated on several of these with another carver.9 No objects made later by the Garvan carver are known.
From the use of choice wood to the opulence of the carving and gracefulness of the design, the present table represents the greatest achievement of the Philadelphia tripod tea table form. Made of solid mahogany, it is fashioned with a scalloped top shaped into ten repeated passages above a vasiform-turned pedestal resting on a tripod base. To define the table's outline and provide a transition between its components, the carver overlaid it with perhaps one of his most ambitious designs. As the focal point for the form, the pedestal is finely articulated with an acanthus carved urn between a fluted and punctured gadrooned canopy and a guilloche ring. To lead the eye up the table and unite its parts, the carver reinforced many of the same elements in the base, which he further enlivened with flowerhead-carved passages, opposing C-scrolls and sinuous leaf carving extending the length of the cabriole leg to powerful claws gripping the balls of the feet. He heightened the effect by undercutting the underside of the legs with C-scrolls and ruffles and relieving the passages between them with large flowerheads on an extremely difficult to achieve smooth ground. This table was clearly created as a rare and luxurious object by its immensely talented craftsman.
The Garvan carver was also a prolific craftsman for he articulated similar carving schemes on multiple other examples of the form. Other tea table with his carving include a tea table in the M. and M. Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 4), one at the State Department (fig. 5), the Fisher-Fox family tea table (fig. 6), one formerly in the collection of Stratford Hall Plantation (fig. 7), one at Winterthur Museum (fig. 8), two in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 9 and Nutting, Furniture Treasury, no. 1115, acc. no. 18.110.14), and one in the Hennage Collection (fig. 10).10 A firescreen in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation displays a pedestal carved by the Garvan carver with many of the same motifs. For this group, the Garvan carver apparently developed a template of elements, which he consistently articulated amongst the tables. These elements include the gadrooned canopy, the acanthus-carved urn, the guilloche ring, egg-and-dart or flowerhead-carved passages, and scrolling leaves articulated near the joint of the leg centering a cartouche of opposing C-scrolls. While all the tables share a related design vocabulary, no two are identical and some have a profusion of carving while others have less.
Of the tables mentioned above, the present table most closely compares to the one in the Karolik Collection (fig. 4) and one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Nutting, Furniture Treasury, no. 1115), with all three displaying a remarkably similar carving scheme but with the other examples exhibiting a column-, baluster-, and compressed-ball pillar and the present table offering a larger top. With their profusion of carving, the MFA, Boston (fig. 4) and the MMA (Nutting, no. 1115) examples appear to be very early versions of the form in the Rococo aesthetic. In other examples, including the present table made slightly later, the Garvan carver experimented with the design by modifying elements and articulating less carving to suit the prevailing taste.
Several other tea tables with compressed-ball pedestals also feature carved elements by the Garvan carver. The aforementioned example at the State Department (fig. 5) was owned by the Philadelphian, Dr. James Hutchinson (1752-1793), who may have inherited it from a relative in the Howell family.11 That table is very similar to this one in its carving scheme comprised of a gadrooned compressed ball and guilloche ring turned pedestal above a base with flowerhead-carved passages and acanthus carving of the same pattern, which similarly extends onto the lower edge of the legs and sides of the base. A second related tea table with base carving of the same pattern extending to the underside of the leg and a fluted column standard is in the Hennage Collection (fig. 10).12
For additional examples of the Garvan carver's work, see a dressing table in the Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a card table at Colonial Williamsburg and its mate in the Kaufman collection with a history in the Vaux family and a card table at Bayou Bend owned by George Ross (1730-1779) of Philadelphia as well as a high chest at Winterthur Museum, one in the collection of the U.S. Department of State, and another illustrated in Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture.13 His carving is also found on a group of magnificent tall-case clocks, including the John Bringhurst tall case clock that was sold in these rooms, Highly Important Americana from the Stanley Paul Sax Collection, January 16-17, 1998, sale 7087, lot 519 and one formerly in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum that sold in these rooms, January 25, 1992, lot 1069. A third clock formerly owned by the pioneer Philadelphia collector Bob Stuart is currently in a private collection while a fourth example is illustrated in Israel Sack Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack Collection, Vol. 8, p. 2191, P5594. The Garvan carver's hand is also responsible for the famous Waln-Ryerss set of Queen Anne side chairs.14
As exceedingly few high style tea tables of this sophistication from this historically significant period in America appear on the marketplace, this sale represents a unique opportunity to acquire one of the finest Philadelphia Rococo tea table ever offered. This table is all the more extraordinary for its exceptional carving by the "Garvan" carver, one of Philadelphia's most accomplished eighteenth century artisans. It additionally carries a sterling provenance in the McMichael-Tilghman family of Philadelphia. Sotheby's is honored to have the privilege to offer a table of this importance for sale.
1 This page is in possession of the family. "Museum" refers to the period of time during the Depression when this table was stored at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The accession number 125-1932-2 was added to the table then.
2 Mary McMichael Tilghman, Philadelphia Wills, 1928, no. 200. Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael, Philadelphia Wills, 1914, no. 307.
3 Philadelphia Wills, 1883, no. 516. Meta's husband, Walter (Philadelphia Wills, 1899, no. 741), came from a prominent 19th century Philadelphia newspaper family. The estate inventory of his father, Morton McMichael, a former Mayor, describes a house richly furnished with 19th century items such as 2 rosewood and tapestry sofas with 2 large and 2 small wall chairs to match, an easel, a piano, a piano stool, cornices and curtains. See Philadelphia Wills, 1879, no. 52.
4 Philadelphia Wills, 1761, p. 67.
5 This property is referenced in an early version of John Baynton's will, dated 1754. Pennsylvania Archives, Baynton, Wharton and Morgan Papers, 1725-1827, Manuscript Group 19, microfilm roll 6, frame 565. He compiled an inventory, dated March 18, 1754, of his assets the same year in which he valued his house and household goods. Microfilm roll 7, Journal B, 1754-9.
6 Philadelphia Wills, 1776, no. 214.
7 The high chest and its companion dressing table were owned by Henry (1737-1816) and Susanna (Wanshaer) Wynkoop (d. 1776), of Bucks County, who were married in 1761. The pieces are illustrated in Gerald Ward, American Case Furniture, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1988), no. 147, pp. 280-3 and no. 116, pp. 226-7.
8 Sotheby's New York, Important Americana, February 2, 1991, sale 632, lot 1459.
9 Thatcher Freund, Objects of Desire, (New York: Pantheon Books,1993), pp. 23-54,
10 For the tables in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, see Morrison Heckscher, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), no. 124, p. 195 and Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury, Volume I, (New York: MacMillan Publishing CO., Inc., 1928), no. 1115. Another table at the Metropolitan Museum of Art perhaps also stemming from this group is illustrated in Morrison Heckscher, "American Furniture and the Art of Connoisseurship," The Magazine Antiques (May 1998), pl. XII, p. 727.
11 See Clement Conger and Alexandra Rollins, Treasures of State : Fine and Decorative Art in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State , (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991) , no. 84, p. 171. See also William Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture, (Washington, D.C.: Highland House Publishers, 1935), pl. 222.
12 See Elizabeth Stillinger, American Antiques: The Hennage Collection, (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1990), frontisepiece and p. 43.
13 See Edwin Hipkiss, Eighteenth Century American Arts in the M. and M. Karolik Collection, (Cambridge, MA: Pub. for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard University Press, 1941), no. 54 (acc. #39.162), Hornor, p. 235, David Warren, et al, American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 1998, no. F115, pp. 67-8, Joseph Downs, American Furniture, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), no. 197, Conger and Rollins, no. 85, p. 172, and Hornor, pl. 141.
14 See Hornor, pl. 41.
Height 28 3/8 in., width 31 ¾ in., depth 32 ¾ in.(72.4cm by 80.7cm by 81.9cm)
William MacPherson Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture. (Washington, D.C.: Highland House Publishers, 1935), pl. 223
By descent through the McMichael-Tilghman family of Philadelphia to Meta Andrews Shaw (1841-1914) of Philadelphia, who married Walter McMichael (1838-1899), son of Morton McMichael, a Mayor of Philadelphia and owner of the newspaper, The North American and United States Gazette;
To her only child, Mary Carstairs McMichael (1865-1928) of Philadelphia, who married Benjamin Tilghman Jr. (1861-1911);
To her only child, Benjamin Chew Tilghman (1890-1953) of Philadelphia, who married Eliza Middleton Fox (b. 1890);
Thence by descent to their grandchildren, the present owners.
The table was likely originally owned by John Baynton (1726-1773) of Philadelphia, the great-great grandfather of Meta Andrews Shaw McMichael and son of the local merchant, Peter Baynton (1695-1743/4). He was a successful merchant in the firm Baynton & Wharton (later Baynton, Wharton, & Morgan). In 1747, he married Elizabeth Chevalier (b. 1726), the daughter of Peter Chevalier, also a successful Philadelphia merchant, and they had 15 children;
To their daughter, Anna Chevalier Baynton (1765-1805) of Philadelphia, who married Reverend James Abercrombie (1758-1841);
To her daughter Margaret Abercrombie (1786-1835/6) of Philadelphia, who married John Andrews (1783-1860);
To her daughter Anna Baynton Andrews (1811-1882/3) of Philadelphia, who married Edward Shaw (1814-1879);
To her daughter, Meta Andrews Shaw, mentioned above.