More than a Tea Table

In our Snell-Franklin Decorative Arts Gallery, a circa 1765 Chippendale tea table sits near the beginning of the exhibit. Made in the Philadelphia style, it features a scalloped (or “pie crust”) edge and a bird cage movement that allows the top to rotate and tilt. Key features of the table – which help us identify its style – include “a ring and fluted columnar-turned pedestal with foliate compressed ball above a foliate-carved collar over a tripartite base on cabriole legs, and acanthus leaf carvings on the knees of the legs which terminate in ball and claw feet.”

…Sounds a bit boring unless you’re a decorative arts scholar. So what’s the deal? Why is this Chippendale table so prized, and what is a Chippendale anyway?

Chippendale is both a person, an era, and a style – named for Thomas Chippendale, an English cabinet-maker and interior designer residing in London. In 1754, he published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, which discussed the growing influence of the ornate French Rococo style and featured many of his designs (the first book of a cabinet-maker to do so). His book codified the French Rococo style and combined it with Queen Anne, Gothic and Asian style influences to become an American and British decorative art form called Chippendale that featured ornate carvings, animal and natural themes, and the use of mahogany wood (which was obtained from the Caribbean). A unique feature of this new style also included the ability for furniture to be folded up and stored when not in use; for our tea table, this meant a mechanism that enabled the top to rotate or become vertical for storage, known as a “bird cage movement.” Detailed pictures of our Chippendale table are below:

The popularity of Chippendale grew out of the rising middle class, who were able to participate in leisure activities more than in the past. Greater international trade and prosperity (which, in America, was largely due to the use of slave labor) meant that families had more time to pursue leisure activities and socialize. Families also had increased wealth, and they wanted to show it off. The result was specialized furniture and decorative items for the home, including unique tables for playing cards and taking tea, like our Chippendale table. The tilting top feature enabled the table to be put away when not in use, a useful feature when it was time to create holiday displays or hold parties.

As Philadelphia grew into the largest colonial city, the immigrants artists and furniture makers who resided there turned to creating lavish interior furnishing for the middle and upper classes. Our table likely comes from Philadelphia, and thus was likely made by immigrant artists.

As Hamilton so succinctly put it, immigrants got the job (of furniture making) done.

So, our Chippendale tea table is more than just for taking tea. It holds stories of the American colonies’ increasing reliance on slave and immigrant labor, the growth of cities and a mercantile elite, and the spread of European fashions – and their adaptation to local needs – around the world.

The table also holds a story of travel – from Philadelphia and the major cities of the east, where the Chippendale style raged, to the collection of C. Ray Franklin, a Big Clifty native and alum of Western Kentucky State College (Class of 1924). As one of the country’s leading ophthalmologists, C. Ray Franklin had an interest in antiques and became a recognized authority on antique furniture. A direct sixth-generation descendant of U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin, he began collecting early American antiques while a student at Harvard and his love and interest in antiques, especially furniture, led to a position as advisor to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during her redecoration of the White House. Franklin owned one of the finest private collections of American antiques and had some of his rare pieces exhibited at times in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1974, Franklin and his wife, Ruth Holman Franklin, made a scholarship gift to the College Heights Foundation and, in 1978, donated 19 pieces of rare antique furniture to the Kentucky Museum. Included in Franklin’s gifts is a bust of his ancestor, Benjamin Franklin, which also resides in the Snell-Franklin Decorative Arts Gallery.

The Chippendale Tea Table is available for adoption, which will sponsor conservation work, research, and continued care of the table long into the future. To adopt this tea table, make a $250 gift through this link and put “Chippendale table” in the Additional Information box. Your gift can be made as a one-time in full or scheduled payment. Thank you.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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