Welcome back! I hope you have enjoyed my previous blogs in this series (if you have not gotten to yet, do not worry! We will include links to them at the bottom). Today’s blog, as you can see, is on tables. Like chairs, most people had some variation of tables in their home, as they have always been practical for various things. Most significantly would be holding meals as dining or kitchen tables, dressing tables for getting ready for the day, or side tables, which can hold various smaller items and be placed in most areas of a house. As you will see, as is the case with most antique furniture, you can look at the differences in material, details, size, and features to assume the financial status and circumstances of a pieces’ first owner. With that being said, now we can get into the recent history of tables in Britain.
So, what are some of the key points to note about furniture at this time? Well, oak and later mahogany would consolidate their positions as the most popular woods. Oak had been one of the most abundant, sturdy, and resistant choices at the time (and it still is). Mahogany, on the other hand, is durable, just not as durable as oak. Still, it responds well to seasonal/climate change in that it does not change noticeably unless excessively exposed. But once it began to be imported into Britain, this attractively coloured and exotic material became immensely popular, adding a certain warmth to pieces it was used in.
Moreover, table heights and widths were changing with the rise in popularity of chairs, as seating in homes was dominated by high stools compared to the successors. As such, tables became lower down in this time. As for width, this is more to do with their usage in dining. Whereas they once were only sat at from one side and served from the other, now they were being served from the centre at sat at from both sides, to accommodate the need to hold more plates, cutlery, and food, they graduated from one plank tops to several. Additionally, there was not a great deal of emphasis on decoration, aprons were generally plain and refectory tables (which took on an additional role as a banquet table in this time due to their size) as a style were an exception in that regard, as for legs, tripod bases were used even on larger tables, though again decoration on this area was not the rule. Gateleg tables, introduced in Britain a few centuries early, we see variations with the legs develop (such as barley twist and spider legged tables) in line with their rise in popularity. They were favourable as the drop leaves could be folded in when not in use, making them more compact and manageable to transport.
For this reason, tilt-top tables were also in fashion. Whilst the gateleg structure itself was popular when in use, it had noticeably more leg space compared to its contemporaries, which in itself was a by-product of their considerable width and roundedness. Altogether, this period can be seen as more of a transitionary phase into more modern designs. The breakaway from its predecessors was either in progress or seeing its groundwork laid.
Moving on from the Georgian era, now it is time to look at tables in the Victorian era. The woods used in this era diversified somewhat. In addition to oak and mahogany, we begin to see more pieces made from rosewood and walnut. Walnut became more popular and the rise in carving, as it is durable and notably easy to carve into. As for rosewood, it is sturdy, polishes well and has an appealing wood grain, though it is a considerably heavy wood.
As you can see, there is much more detail in the Victorian walnut tilt top table on the right than the Georgian yew wood tilt-top on the left. This does not necessarily make it superior, as for some, I am sure a simpler aesthetic is preferable. However, I think it highlights the progress made in woodworking this time (particularly when it comes to carving). Similar to the rest of the furniture in this time, most pieces were made with neoclassical and/or gothic elements incorporated. However, on top of this, it became more common for tables to be marble-topped. Though it must be noted, this was somewhat exclusive to the upper and entrepreneurial classes (most of the noticeably decorated and grandiose pieces).
Another thing to consider is the size of Victorian furniture. This is largely a consequence of who typically owned these kinds of pieces, and they were typically wealthier. As such, they would be designed to fill out space within the rooms of these grand houses, whereas today, houses are typically more compact, and as such, the markedly large tables would not integrate well into their interiors. That is not to say all tables would not work. There are drop leaf tables that can be extended if necessary and many beautiful side and hall tables that can be repurposed as bedside tables, coffee tables, etc.
I will begin this section of the blog with a point on manufacturing. Machine-made furniture saw its inception in the Victorian era. However, its quality compared to handmade furniture was disputed. Some preferred the handmade furniture’s aesthetic and character, though it meant designs could be introduced on a mass scale and become more available to the public. Now, in the 20th century, this was a far more efficient and refined process, and mass-produced lines of furniture became commonplace. This did, however, mean designs were less often tailored to the needs of the individual but instead were made to suit the most common room sizes and layouts. But once again, as there were numerous lines, tables were exactly confined to an exact set of measurements. You might also notice in this time that there is a rise in reproductions in this time, as the development of technology and understanding of materials made it an easier process to recreate tables in styles from previous times and artificially give them the aged aesthetic antiques have. It may be not easy, but it is typically possible to differentiate between reproduction or based on as older pieces tend to have more imperfections that accumulate in the development process (which lacked the same finesse one might see today). As for what was unique to the 20th century, this century opened with art nouveau furniture. The theme of this style was centred on nature. Legs would be shaped organically so that a piece might ‘flow’. Carvings tended to have a floral element to them. This was the art deco style, which is seen as an extension of art nouveau. In this style, pieces were made with a greater focus on their geometry, how angular they were, minimising imperfections in their form and the use of perfect circles. As such, tables from this time can be seen as ‘sharper’ than their predecessors and could almost be seen as a rebuttal to art nouveau.
Overall, tables have seen drastic changes in recent history, not only because of how commonplace they are within the home but also what can be incorporated into their designs. Compared to other kinds of furniture, there is far more diversity in the legs, feet, and aprons of tables, to name a few. Further still, changes in the aesthetic and manufacturing of drawers were also reflected on tables. It was not uncommon for certain types of tables (notably side or kitchen tables) to have one drawer or multiple, which would be for things such as work materials or cutlery. They also can be repurposed somewhat. For example, a farmhouse table might be too large for a modern household, but would you cut down the legs? Now you could have a coffee table. As mentioned previously, gateleg and drop-leaf tables were made to be adaptable and compact if needed. As such, they do not strictly need to be used as dining or kitchen tables. Lastly, for what you might be getting in an antique table, entry-level pieces are quite diverse and affordable, as tables have always been an in-demand piece of furniture. Tables have the distinction of being one of the most varied items when it comes to purpose. So, at nearly every price point, you can find the many sub-categories of tables on display.
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