Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854)

New York c.1815

The hinged swiveling oblong top with canted corners, brass stringing and burl wood cross banding, opening to a well lined with patterned paper, the case with a conforming apron, the canted corners paneled with burl wood, the top edge and apron bottom decorated with brass stringing, above a pair of outward-facing gilt and vert-antique painted, carved eagles, supported in the rear by gilded and painted baluster and ring turned posts all raised on an abacus shaped base its sides punctuated by gilded rosettes and at the corners, four gilt and vert-antique decorated acanthus carved hocked legs with gilded acanthus carved brackets in front, extending beneath the base to almost touch each other, the animal paw feet raised on brass casters.

H: 30½”  W: 36”  D: 18½”

ConditionExcellent; minor veneer losses and repair to shrinkage cracks to the top, the interior baize playing surface is a modern reproduction, minor restoration to missing feather tips on proper right eagle, proper left wing and proper left eagle, proper right wing, old canvas patches added to back of wing for support, all the gilded and vert-antique surfaces were cleaned of later overall coats of metallic gold paint with black under painting, revealing significant areas of original gilding with original vert-antique in alternating patterns, small areas of loss were restored to blend with the original.  Small areas of darker color on the sides of the abacus base indicated that decorative elements were missing from the table. The gilded compo rosettes punctuating the sides of the base were reproduced from another table from this group of carved griffin and eagle tables (Nancy Priest’s).   A study of the three tables from this distinctive group that use the rosettes at the base, revealed that the cabinetmaker always used the same rosettes.  The rosettes have been affixed with temporary putty so that the evidence of their original existence can be examined.  Shellac finish re-polished.  A highly detailed conservators report supported by photographic documentation accompanies the table.

This table is one of a highly distinctive group of griffin and eagle base tables that were thought, at one time, to be the work of Charles-Honoré Lannuier.  This theory is now discredited and modern scholarship has determined that the group was produced by Lannuier’s principle competitor in New York, Duncan Phyfe.[1]

In addition to the present example, the known group consists of a griffin card table in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,[2] a griffin card table at Winterthur Museum, an eagle card table in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Museum, New Haven,[3]  a griffin card table in the collection of Nancy W. Priest,[4] a griffin card table, eagle breakfast table and griffin center table at the Maryland Historical Society,[5] an eagle sofa table in a private collection,[6]  an eagle guéridon in the Museum of the City of New York,[7] a griffin sofa table and pair of card tables (the griffins in the form of harps), en suite, in a private New York collection,[8] a massive griffin sideboard at the Los Angeles County Museum, a pair of griffin card tables at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a griffin card table with dolphin feet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a griffin card table in a private collection and a griffin pier table in a private collection.

Plate #5, figure D of the New-York Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work, 1817 shows the profile of these griffins’ and eagle design indicating that some, if not all, of these tables were already in existence when that price guide was published. The same plate in the price guide shows the design for the stretcher of the sofa table of the suite sold at Christies in 1988, a very distinctive design.

The inspiration for the design of these tables, as almost all the furniture of this period, was the remains of ancient Roman furniture rendered in marble or bronze.  Other sources of inspiration from the ancient world came from architectural details, Greek pottery paintings, ancient tombstones, mosaics and wall paintings discovered at archaeological sites in Southern Italy.

The specific reference for this group of griffin tables is a table in the Vatican Museum rendered and published by Charles Heathcote Tatham in 1799 in his work Etchings Representing the Best Examples of Ancient Ornamental Architecture; Drawn from the Originals in Rome.  Tatham, chief draughtsman in the firm of Henry Holland, architect to the Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent), was dispatched to Italy in 1794 to record ancient architectural details.  His book became tremendously influential in English and American furniture design and, indeed, was reissued in 1803, 1810, 1826 and 1843!

Tatham titles his drawing, “An Ancient fragment of a table foot executed in greek marble, now placed against the wall as a basso relievo in the Vatican, the companion is in the same Museum”[sic.].  An impressive object, it had inspired Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), who published an engraving of it in his Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcophagi, tripodi, lucerne, ed ornamenti antichidesegnati (1778).  Piranesi’s work received wide exposure throughout Europe and in the United States.

Designers throughout the Western world were enthralled by the antique and used the same Roman and Greek objects and symbols to inspire their work.  For example, it is likely that these publications inspired French design publisher Pierre de La Mésangère who issued a closely related design for a console in plate 144 in 1804 in his Collection des Meubles et Objets de Goût published serially from 1802 to 1830.  A closely related German console table designed by Gottfried Shadow made about 1802 in the collection of the Potsdam Stadtschloß is evidence of the universal power and appeal of the Vatican console design.[9]

Mésangère’s Collection was influential in the United States as well as in Europe, especially in New York where Honoré Lannuier’s work often reflected his designs and, it is likely that, Lannuier’s caryatids were adapted from designs in Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil de décorations intérieures.  As a result, it has been assumed that this group of griffin tables were French in inspiration; a response to Lannuier’s caryatid-base tables.  Yet it is now clear that Phyfe’s inspiration was from an English publication, preceding any relevant work by Percier and Fontaine or by Mésangère, opening the possibility that these tables, too, could have preceded Lannuier’s group.

Most of the tables in this American group attributed to Phyfe use the griffin design directly inspired by the Vatican console(s) and Tatham’s drawing of it, however the present example differs from the group by using a pair of eagles, obviating the need for the repellant haunches of the griffin model.  The felicitous substitution of eagles instead of griffins also makes sense of the awkward missing front paws of the American griffin model and lends a lightness and verticality to the design that dramatically improves the composition.  The eagle figures require no front legs and terminate in delicate gilded scrolls, a successful innovation of the cabinetmaker.  This refinement, in combination with the gilded compo rosettes around the plinth base, used on only three other tables in the group, make this table unique and the most successful realization of the group based on this ancient design. A highly important example of the cabinetmaker’s art in New York in the classical period, successfully incorporating every high-style design craft, in our opinion, it is a masterpiece of American furniture and Phyfe’s greatest table.

Provenance:  This table descended in the family of Ezekiel Cheever.  Born in 1614, he immigrated to Boston in 1637 to teach in Ipswich and New Haven.  He later became famous as the headmaster of the Boston Latin School.  Cotton Mather gave his funeral oration in 1708.  His descendants lived in Marblehead and Manchester, Massachusetts for the next five generations.  On September 3, 1815 his great, great grandson Samuel Cheever, married twenty one year old Fanny Allen (1794-1819), of Manchester.  Fanny’s great, great grandfather had been among the founders of Manchester and her father, Captain John Allen (1757-1822), was a prosperous sea captain, as were her three older brothers, John, James and Samuel.  (Captain Allen’s house, still standing today in Manchester, is one of the only brick houses of the period there.  Local histories indicate that the brick was imported by him from England, as domestic brick was not to his taste.)  The joining of these venerable and wealthy families may be the occasion for a gift to the couple of this card table.

Their son, Captain Henry Allen Cheever, (1816-1873), born in Manchester, Massachusetts, married Frances Roxanna Goodrich (1819-1885), of Westminster, Vermont.  He was a master mariner, and in 1851 they moved to San Francisco where they resided at 26 Essex Street in the “Octagon House” that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.  In 1873 in San Francisco, their daughter Frances (Fanny) Allen Cheever (b.1850), married Horatio Nelson Wright (1840-1925), son of John Tennant Wright (1801-1868), a sea captain and steam ship company owner from Throggs Neck, New York.  Their son, Allen Cheever Wright (1875-1913), married Marie Ann Kaiser (1873-1961), and they lived in San Francisco and Berkley.  Their daughter, Frances Wright Runnels (c.1900-1965) of Portland, Oregon inherited the table.  While it is not known where the table entered the family, present family information indicates that it has been passed down, in this line, from generation to generation.[10]

Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854), considered the most important American cabinetmaker of the first half of the nineteenth century, worked at Partition Street (renamed Fulton Street in 1816) in New York City from 1793 through 1847.  Famous and highly successful, Phyfe ran a large workshop and produced furniture throughout his long career in all the latest styles.  As a fashion leader, Phyfe introduced New York to a succession of styles inspired by the renowned designers Robert Adam (1728-1792), George Hepplewhite (d.1786) and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) in England, and the Directoire, Empire and Restauration periods in France.  His clients included the great merchant and banking elite of the city, as well as wealthy and discriminating buyers from Boston to New Orleans.  An innovative designer, superior craftsman and carver, Phyfe’s name is synonymous with the finest New York furniture of the period.

T-Cd-029051

[1] Peter M. Kenny & Michael K. Brown et al., Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), p. 84 & 204, pl. 29.

[2] Jonathan L. Fairbanks & Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, American Furniture 1620 to the Present (Richard Marek Publishers, New York, 1981), p.271.

[3] Peter M. Kenny, Francis F. Bretter, Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier; Cabinetmaker from Paris (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), p.95.

[4] Ibid, p.95.

[5] Gregory R. Weidman, Furniture in Maryland 1740-1940 (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1984), figs. 161-163.

[6] Berry B. Tracy, Classical America 1815-1845 (The Newark Museum, Newark, 1963), fig. 13.

[7] Ibid, fig. 11.

[8] Sold at Christies, October 1, 1988, lot 377 & 378.

[9] Heinrich Kreisel, von Georg Himmelhaber, Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels (C.H. Beck, Munchen, 1973), fig. 293. A related example, probably made in Stockholm, is at Vittskövle, in southern Sweden (see, Håken Groth, Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850 (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), p. 159.

[10] Information provided by the Wright family.

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