The purpose of my Woodworking in America session on inlay, “Understanding Inlay: A Key Piece in Connoisseurship & Identification” wasn’t to provide rules of thumb to discover the orientation of antique furniture – the idea was to give a few general guidelines that would help identify from where a particular antique piece of furniture may have been built. We focused on card tables from the Federal period due to the fact that each major city built card tables from the simplest designs to the most intricate, heavily-inlaid tables. I emphasized throughout the class that the information presented should be grouped with other gathered information so one could draw a conclusion. That stated again, I’ll pass along a few of my comments.
The first and easiest way to identify a card tables point of origin has nothing to do with the inlay, although you could also establish the same origin if you studied the banding and pictorial inlays on the table. Here, however, construction techniques are a dead give-away. The table pictured above is from New York. We know this because of the fifth leg. In almost all cases, if you have a fifth leg, you are looking at a card table built in New York.
Let’s get back to inlay. The most fascinating of inlay banding, at least to me, is what is known as lunette inlay. There was a time in our furniture study that whenever this inlay was found on a piece of period furniture, that piece was immediately associated with the father and son team of John and Thomas Seymour. Later, a similar inlay was found on other signed furniture not built by the Seymours. That caused dealers and collectors to question the attribution of the Seymour work. The table shown above is a signed piece built in New Hampshire, and not a card table built by a Seymour.
As a woodworker, I wonder how this inlay was made in the period. (The left-hand photo is a close-up look at lunette inlay.) Was it laid up in a pack then sliced as was other inlay? Some woodworker think so. Or was it laid up a stick at a time? There is a camp of today’s woodworkers who think that was how it was done in the late 1700s. Regardless of how you may think it was made, it is a great piece of work and worthy of the amount of study it has received.
Another area that I find interesting is to look at the use of eagles in pictorial inlay. The image at the right is a grouping of eagle patera I pulled together from “American Furniture The Federal Period” by Charles F. Montgomery. (I highly recommend this Winterthur book if you are at all interested in inlay.) If you study the eagles, you’ll notice a few interesting things. First of all, Connecticut inlay – not just the eagles, but most of the inlay work found in this area – is very artistic and quite different from work found elsewhere. Pinpointing period work from the Connecticut River Valley and from Connecticut is rather simple.
Of the remaining eagles, take a close look at the inlay from New York. Notice how lifelike the eagle appears. This eagle looks bold, strong and very patriotic. The Federal period in which we’re looking is right after the Revolutionary war when New York was the nation’s capital, until 1791 when it was moved to Philadelphia before moving to Washington DC. Patriotism had to be extremely strong at the time. Was this strength reflected in the inlay produced at the time?
One last thought on eagle inlay: If you study the eagles shown in Pennsylvania, Maryland and the South, you’ll see that each of the eagles have something in the mouth, a streaming banner. This could be a telltale of furniture from these areas. Shown at the right is a door from an antique clock. The clock is known to be from Pennsylvania. And the eagle has the banner held in its mouth.
This is just a taste of the what can be discovered when studying inlay. Over the next couple of months, I’ll present another post on what I’ve discovered about inlay. If you have some interesting information to share, please do so in the comment section below.
Build Something Great!