While Michael recovers, here’s a reprise of a prior blog entry.
My last blog entry brought a spate of e-mails- admittedly a smallish spate, as I have only a handful of dedicated readers. The e-discussion centered on how I had brushed aside dining tables, focusing on sideboards as the primary dining room debacle. I readily agree with my readers who point out that dining tables can be more than a little problematic. As well, they are such a bane that a number of fine quality dealers rarely even offer them.
I say a bane for a number of reasons. First, while a sideboard was of some roughly typical dimensions determined by the purposes a sideboard served, a period dining table can be of widely varying dimensions, explained by considering their original context. As with so much multi-use 18th century furniture, an early dining table may not have been used exclusively for that purpose. The earliest dining table we’ve ever handled is presently in our inventory and is shown here fully extended. As such, it can handily seat 20 people. In its incarnation illustrated, it is composed of two demilune ends, two drop leaf center sections, and two leaves. With a little understanding of 18th century usage and room arrangement, one would surmise that the table was seldom fully assembled in its early life, and, when not in use, its components might have been deployed as follows- one of the drop leaf sections was in use for dining, accommodating 8 people around all four sides, with the other drop leaf section, with one leaf dropped, functioning as a side-serving table. The two demilune ends were probably used as pier or console tables, possibly on either side of a chimney breast, possibly in the dining room but just as possibly in some other room. The two leaves? Probably stored- and stored flat, apparently, as they haven’t warped in 250 years.
Regency period tables- those of the splayed legs that seem to inform the image most of us have of a ‘proper’ dining table- are then often times huge pieces of furniture, purpose-built for the now-standard purpose-built dining rooms that accommodated them. While of course length is an issue, the problem we typically encounter most often is depth. Our recent experience tells us that the optimal depth for even a grand modern house is something in the neighbourhood of 40” to 48”. Long and narrow is now what’s wanted to accommodate formal dining. However, formal dining in the Regency heyday of the dining table could not be accomplished with anything so shallow. Part of the dining experience was pageantry on a scale that none of us has ever experienced, unless you regularly attend state dinners at Windsor Castle. 10 courses or more would not be unusual, with a separate beverage for each course. Each place would have been laid with flatware, cutlery and drinking glasses to accommodate the whole of the meal- and a goodly number of the plates, too- all part of the panoply of dining. Consequently, the space required for this massive number of accoutrements was huge, extending an arm’s length from the outside edge toward the centre of the table. A 48” depth would be barely adequate- 60” is more like it.
Even with infrequent use, dining tables have traditionally had hard use. This, then, brings us to the second big issue surrounding period dining tables- their condition. Table tops were most at risk, with wine stains a particular problem. The alcohol in the wine has the unfortunate effect of dissolving the shellac of the table top, allowing the wine access to and absorption by the raw wood. A table cloth will have made matters worse, soaking up wine and keeping it in contact with the table top longer than if the wine were spilled and then mopped up from a bare table. The tannins and oxidation of the sugars in the wine will always leave a dark stain. Although modern restoration using chemical methods can generally ameliorate stains, the more typical method has been a mechanical one- strip off the old finish and then aggressively sand the entire table top to down below the level of the stains. Tragically, this effects to remove all the patination- but not always the stains!- and a good bit of the figuring in the wood. Adding insult to significant injury is that this ‘restoration’ is frequently followed by the application of impermeable plastic finishes to ‘protect’ the top from future stains. Of all the items that are the victims of botched restoration, I think, as a class, dining tables rank fairly highly amongst the ranks of most frequently botched.
Did I mention, as well, that dining tables take up a lot of a dealer’s floor space? They do, of course, monopolizing space that could accommodate a number of other, smaller items. So, a costly item, hard to find in good condition, with dimensions that are unlikely to match what’s required by the client, and hard to display. A bane. But, of course, the offset is the magnificence of the best tables: nothing that I can think of offers the expanse of fine quality matched timbers- and this is what makes them sought after, and makes a dealer swallow hard, take the acquisition plunge, and put them on display.