ABOUT ANTIQUE DINING TABLES
A Guide to Antique Dining Tables
In terms of the antique dining tables available today we perhaps think as far back as the 16th Century for primitive plank top refectory tables but of coarse the civilised Worlds of ancient history have always built tables for dining. Perhaps the very first were smooth flat rocks used by our cave dwelling ancestors?
Generally speaking the further we look back in recent centuries the rarer the table and hence greater the price. From the Jacobean, Charles II, William & Mary and Queen Anne periods any sizeable 16th, 17th or early 18th Century English refectory table, if entirely original, is so rare that when coming to market you could expect to pay at least £10,000 and anything up to £100,000. Fortunately, in terms of budget, many of these early refectory tables were revived (copied) at later dates and have survived in greater numbers. Towards the end of the 19th Century there was a Jacobean Revival by the Victorians and we often find very well made and convincingly patinated examples of jointed and trestle ended early period refectory tables that range in price from £1500 for an 8ft to £3000 for larger.
By the mid 18th Century our seafaring merchants were importing highly fashionable exotic timbers and mahogany became the most desirable choice for cabinet makers and their clients. The transition from a mixed period of construction of earlier primitive design and cleaner Georgian designs during the early 18th Century soon became nearly exclusively formal designs during George II reign due to the enormous influence of Thomas Chippendale and his piers. London and major towns of England were modernising and its' society were now very much trying to 'keep up with the Jones’s'.
It was during this early Chippendale period that the first examples of adjustable and extendable dining tables were designed and made. Using the tripod cabriole leg base design, often found on Georgian wine and occasional tables, much larger examples were made with rectangular tops in a series of three or four pedestal based sections joined by clips. These tables could by adjusted in length by using any combination of the sections and sometimes loose leaves were suspended between pedestals. In our combined 200 years of trading experience at Elisabeth James we have never seen in the market a completely original (retaining all pedestal bases and tops) version of these early Georgian extendable tables and hazard a guess that, if coming to the open market, could be in the region of £250,000 or more! However, throughout the 19th Century and especially during the 'Revival' period of Georgian designs late 19th/early 20th Century many good quality pedestal or 'pillar' tables were made to the same designs and are available today at affordable prices, £1500 - £10,000.
By the 1770's, in George III reign, a new version of extendable table known as a 'D' ended table was in manufacture. Comprising two demi or 'D' shaped end tables (look like console tables) with the centre extending section being a simple drop leaf table which could be clipped to the console shaped ends when leaves are raised. Always standing on square chamfered or tapering legs these tables were made in relatively large numbers and some complete examples survive today. The awkward positioning of the multiple legs do make them difficult to sit at and seating numbers are therefore restricted, which, as a consequence, makes them the very cheapest of Georgian dining tables with a price tag of as little as £3000 for an 8-9ft example.
The late 18th Century saw the emergence of a new genre of furniture designers who added a little finery to the antique dining table. Hepplewhite and Sheraton are perhaps the most influential of these new furniture designers but there were many more. Perhaps as a consequence of the difficulty sourcing timber due to wars, or maybe simply a decisive move for greater elegance, much of the heavy construction of Chippendale's era was surpassed. The pedestal bases of the sectional tables were now fitted with fine sweeping sabre legs and the console ended tables stood on turned legs which now incorporated extendable runners that could be joined in the middle so that a combination of extra leaves could be added. Again there are very few absolutely original examples in existence and the price varies enormously dependent on size and originality (and where you buy them!). At around 7 – 8ft you'd expect to pay around £10,000 in a retail shop. At 10ft or more most are retailed for £15 – 25,000 but we usually have stock of this larger size for a trade price of around £10,000.
At the turn of 19th Century another famous manufacture, Gillows of Lancaster, stamped his mark on furniture design. Incorporating much of the best work of Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite the Gillows workshops set the benchmark for the remaining Georgian reign, often referred to as the Regency Period, and much of the entire 19th Century designs of extending dining table. Perhaps the most noticeable Gillows feature was the tight reeded leg which was introduced in about 1805. Often referred to as a 'Gillows leg' but in fact a modification from Sheraton's work in the 1790's. By this time efforts were made to construct tables as one unit with the ability to extend using graduating telescopic runner systems and, for a brief period, using the Wilkinson patented 'scissor action' (hinged concertina frame). Most of these tables offer the classic fine reeded leg and use inner legs mounted on the extending framework to support the centre when fully extended. Small examples of 7 -8ft can be found for around (retail price) £8000 but larger examples of 10ft or over are quite rare so often anything from £15,000 - £25,000.
The brief period of George IV and William IV saw the final evolution of what was to became the format for all extending a dining tables for the remainder of the 19th Century. Tables where now all constructed as one unit and the box section telescopic action runner system employed as either a full length version with legs on each corner or ends pulled out from the legs and frame (mainly William IV period). The reeded leg dominated still but many William IV tables are distinguishable by their faceted legs. Prices range widely but the usual rule of thumb prevails with price dependent on size. From ourselves the smaller 8ft tables are around £3,000, 10ft around £5000, 12ft around £7500 and the very large and rare varying in price from £10,000.
Coinciding with Victoria coming to the thrown, and the beginnings of the industrialisation era, the very last feature of extending dining tables was introduced by a chap from Birmingham called Joseph Fitter. Although there are earlier examples of steel winding mechanisms known, it was Fitter who mass produced for cabinet makers the screw thread winding mechanisms that feature in nearly all extending dining tables dating from 1840 onwards. The emergence of the city dwelling 'Middle Classes', with their more compact town houses, created huge demand for extending dining tables and the Victorian period 1837 to 1901 could be viewed as the golden era of what most folk today picture in their minds to be the classic 'wind-out' extending dining table. The reeded leg was still used, but enlarged to support the table without middle legs, and plainer baluster turned legs equally as popular. Ranging in size from 6ft and manufactured in mahogany, oak and walnut, these tables are widely available in a smaller size but again very difficult to find at 10ft or over. However, this period saw a huge variation in the quality because these tables were now manufactured in what you might consider a 'mass produced' fashion. There were 'Aston Martin' cabinet makers and there were 'Fiat' cabinet makers. So, unfortunately, the market today sees many poor quality and badly restored examples on sale, seemingly always offered for sale described as 'quality' - usually via Ebay or in the 'hobbyist' antique centres. 'Caveat Emptor'.
The work required to restore a large antique dining table to its former glory, after 100 to 400 years of use, is substantial task. Over time the wooden runners wear, winding mechanisms bend and seize, leg joints loosen, timbers shrink and the table will almost always also need polishing due to unsightly marks, discolouration and general fatigue of the polish. Almost without exception, every table we stock required complete restoration in our workshops by a professional team of cabinet makers and polishers. Each table is carefully dismantled and all restoration completed before a full French Polish or wax finish. The cost to do this work, even for an 8ft example in seemingly good original order, is around £1500 to attain a perfect result. In terms of price a good quality fully restored 8ft Victorian table therefore, we feel, represents excellent value with prices starting from as little as £2000.