Teeming with ornament and seamlessly constructed, the Stevenson family card table is an aesthetic and technical masterpiece that incorporates all the ideals of the Philadelphia Rococo. At once architectonic and precious, the carved ornamentation, reminiscent of a sculptor's modeling or a silversmith's chasing, fluidly merges with the projecting sides, ample skirt and solid legs. This complex design, manifesting itself in the figured mahogany of the Stevenson table, displays an elaborate graphic composition and rare carving ability that is arguably unsurpassed in the history 18th-century American craftsmanship.
The Stevenson card table belongs to a very small group of scalloped skirt, turret ended card tables with similarly carved designs made from approximately 1760 to 1780. Included in this group are tables in the following public and private collections: The Chipstone Foundation (fig.2), The Winterthur Museum (fig.3), and a pair in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (fig.1) and The Kaufman Collection (see Flanigan, American Furniture in the Kaufman Collection, 1986, p.44, entry 14). All of these tables have fully carved skirts centered by a ruffled shell motif within an intricate mass of rosettes, cabochons, C-scrolls, and foliage. Each also has legs carved in high relief from the incised turret sides and to the ankles. Together, these features present a dynamic, multi-dimensional design with simultaneous horizontal and vertical perspectives.
The four cited examples share the same form, comparable dimensions, and striking similarities in choice and placement of ornament, all affinities that suggest that they were inspired from the same design source or pattern. It is possible that a single Philadelphia carver/cabinetmaker created an original prototype from which the others were inspired; the close proximity of shops and interrelationships between cabinetmakers and carvers lent itself to the dissemination of design ideas.
CARVING: DESIGN AND EXECUTION OF THE STEVENSON CARD TABLE
Despite a similar overall design formula, the specifics of the layout and the carving on the Stevenson table is markedly different from the Williamsburg, Winterthur, Chipstone, and Kaufaman examples. The character of its carved ornamentation is unique within this group.
The graphic layout of the Stevenson card table's carving is defined overall by three qualities of linear carving: deliberate and symmetrical placement of sweeping c-scrolls with prominent terminii that rarely stand alone but almost always issue overlapping grasses within or outside the arc; deep vertical gouge cuts bulbous at one end and pointy at the other; and a series of incisions, usually three or four, paired within grasses and rosettes along edges alternating with punctuated by incised ovals, pinwheels, and punchmarks.
The details and execution of the ornament of the Stevenson table described above is more closely related to another group of furniture thought to have been carved by the same hand. This group includes the set of chairs made for the Lambert family of Lambertville, New Jersey, and a demi-lune marble-top table in the Bayou Bend Collection (figures 5,6). Other furniture with features associated with this shop include a matching high chest and dressing table in the Kaufman Collection (Flanigan, 1986, p. 86-89) and a slab-table at the Winterthur Museum.
The distinct graphic quality outlined above and the skill of the carver are the general commonalities between the Stevenson table and the pieces in this group. Specific similarities are revealed in the imprints left by certain tools such as a trailing beaded line as well as the use of highly particular geometrical motifs used by the carver to further enliven the carved groupings. One such element is the presence of a series of incised half-circles along the edges of wavy, almost peripatetic, and asymmetrical ornaments usually carved along the edges of the furniture; these half-circles complement and create further rhythm within the overall design. In the case of the Stevenson table, these circles can be found tucked into the reserves left by the high relief carved edges of the ruffle at the highest point on of the skirt. In one of the Lambert chairs, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this series of demi-circles can be found along the edges of the relief-carved veins at the knees (figure 5).
Another mark of this carver is the dot-over-U-shaped gouge mark that appears intermittently in the card table, alternating with incised lines in the ruffle at the skirt sides and again, alternating with incised lines along the legs. Several of these marks can be found on the knees of the Metropolitan's chair (see illustration in Heckscher, p.340, fig.51). The U-shaped gouge mark appears again on other pieces attributed to the same carver, most notably the table at Bayou Bend (fig.6). On this table, however, the U-shaped gouge is dragged downward to create a central vein at the knee terminating in a V. This feature can also be seen on a slab-top table at Winterthur thought to be carved by the very same hand.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison, however, is the drop-pendant cartouche on the Stevenson card table to the central shell-carved ornament on the Lambert chair's crest. These two ornamental clusters have nearly identical silhouettes -- only they are mirror images of each other (see figs. 5, 7).
An unusual feature found in the Stevenson Family Card table is the four directional or + -shaped punch found gravitating around the edges of the card table's legs. This particular punchmark may turn out to be a hallmark of this carver and a clue to the maker's identity.
ABRAHAM ROENTGEN (1711-1793) AND THE EUROPEAN PRECURSORS TO THE STEVENSON CARD TABLE
Philadelphia's debt to English and Irish forms and carving has been well documented. Round-cornered tea and games tables were used in Georgian England by 1710, and deeply curved cabriole legs and the concertina action were popular by the next decade (For comparisons of tables from England and Ireland with examples from Virginia and Philadelphia examples, see Kirk, American Furniture & The British Tradition to 1830, (New York, 1982), figs. 1358-1371; For English examples, see Beard and Goodison, English Furniture 1500-1840, Oxford, 1987, p.52).
The German precedence for the card table form exemplified by the Stevenson table has been less fully explored. John T. Kirk first illustrated the formal relationship between the Winterthur example (fig.2) and a group of tables including one by Abraham Roentgen, the German cabinetmaker from Neuwied (see Kirk, fig.1340 and 1353-4). Gerald Ward, in his discussion of the Stevenson table being offered here, also acknowledges this formal relationship between the Roentgen piece and the Philadelphia version (Conger and Rollins,Treasures of State, 1981, entry 80). Through these comparisons, both Kirk and Ward suggest that Philadelphia craftsmen were influenced by German cabinetmaking.
It is interesting to note that the Roentgen table illustrated by Kirk for the comparison is actually a "harlequin table." This type of table, thought to have been first invented by Roentgen when he apprenticed in London (before 1739), was ingeniously constructed as a games, writing, or music table. The form is fitted with two tops that fold over to reveal or conceal a mechanism stored in the bottom of the table, and reveal a nest of stacked drawers and shelves or a tric-trac board (Huth, Roentgen Furniture: Abraham and David Roentgen: European Cabinet-makers, London, 1974, p.29-30). It would seem that the extra thickness of the skirt and of the legs were developed by the Roentgen shop in order to support the actual weight and accommodate the dimensions of this contraption. Hence, if an immigrant cabinetmaker in America had used such a table as his model, he derived his shape, specifically his deep skirt with heavily carved edges, from a form which in fact had multiple functions -- perhaps functions that he did not have the interest, ability, or even the knowledge of, to create.
In addition to the formal relationship between the work of Abraham Roentgen and the Philadelphia examples, an ornamental relationship should also be considered. Aside from mechanical contrivances, the Roentgen shop was known for its brilliant cabinetry, marquetry, parquetry, carving, and prodigeous use of gilt-bronze mounts in the rococo style. A number of the shop pieces created before 1760 have carved, inlaid, or applied ornamental features that bear loose ornamental resemblance to the Stevenson card table. For example, the placement of a series of large C-scroll mounts at the center of a thickly carved skirt resembles the drop-pendant carving and placement at the front of the Stevenson skirt (see Kirk, figs. 119-128). Also, the signature cubed parquetry found on Roentgen pieces made between 1755 and 1765 resembles the diapered background of the Stevenson table's turret sides (see Kirk, figs. 1353-4 also Huth, figs. 199-128). Furthermore, the entire composition of the incised turret sides is loosely related to the arched reserves inlaid with interior or decorative scenes found on Roentgen pieces, many of which were inspired by Augsburg engravings (see Huth, figs.20-3).
Any direct influence of Roentgen's workshop on the carver of the Stevenson card table is difficult to ascertain. Roentgen was the patriarch of a family of cabinetmakers who worked for Europe's successive kings and princes from the 1730s through the end of the century. The remarkable resemblance of the father's work from the 1730s-50s to Philadelphia furniture may be attributed to German immigrant cabinetmakers or English immigrant cabinetmakers who had trained or seen the actual work or its derivations in England. Furthermore, Abraham Roentgen himself is thought to have visited America around 1740, as a missionary to the Indians in North Carolina. This little known and fascinating fact can potentially lead to the establishment of connections between German cabinetmakers and American designs before the mid-eighteenth century.
CORNELIUS STEVENSON AND HIS DESCENDANTS
The life of Cornelius Stevenson, presumed by family tradition to have been the first owner of this card table, has not been fully explored. He is mentioned in the minutes of the Council of Safety of November 15, 1776; at the meeting, Stevenson is connected to the prosperous merchant Levi Hollingsworth. The minutes record:
Mr. Nesbitt was directed to pay to Levi Hollingsworth an order drawn on this Board by Stephen Ceronie in favour of Cornelius Stevenson, for &137 Penn'a Currency, dated St. Thomas, 9th June 1776 (Colonial Records, vol.11, 1776-9, p.5).
Cornelius Stephenson is again mentioned in a list of Effective Supply Tax, dating from 1782 (Pennsylvania Archives, Third Series, vol.16).
The next generation produced a William Stevenson who lived at Walnut Street and his father may have been the Cornelius Stevenson mentioned above. A full inventory and appraisal of the household goods of William Stevenson includes an itemized list of his real estate worth $753.21 and names two sons as beneficiaries, Cornelius S. and Robert S. Stevenson (see Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Papers of the Stevenson Family).
The following Cornelius Stevenson, probably the son of William and grandson of Cornelius mentioned above, was associated with the War of 1812. On September 13, 1814, he was appointed to the first brigade of the first division of the Militia of the City and County of Philadelphia, and by October 4, he was listed as a Captain of the Volunteer Company of Washington Artillery and organized a quota of Militia of the State of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Archives, vol.8, p.568, 6th series). Later, on January 15, 1830, a Cornelius and William Stevenson, along with George Troutman, were appointed
Treasurer, Aldermen and citizens of Philadelphia (see Certificate of Appointment at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the Stevenson Family Papers). Presumably, this was the same Cornelius Stevenson who died in 1860. In the sermon given at St. Andrew's Church in commemoration of Cornelius Stevenson, April 29, 1860, the Reverend William Bacon Stevens remembered that he was a Guardian of the Poor and Supporter of the Almshouse as well that for over twenty years, he had occupied the highest financial office in the city with the fullest trust of his constituents (a transcript of this sermon is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania).
Cornelius Stevenson's wife Mary Stevenson inherited his house at no.296 Walnut Street, as well as all of the plate and household and kitchen furniture (Philadelphia City Hall, Wills book, 43, no.157, p.385). His four children were William, Adam May, Catharine (Hockley) Stevenson, and a deceased daughter Ann Eliza Perkins. Adam May inherited the Stevenson family table.
Adam May Stevenson (1806-1888) and his wife Anne Smith Phillips (1811-1894), married in 1838, left the card table to their son Cornelius (b. 1842). Cornelius' wife, Sarah Yorke Stevenson (1847-1921), a well-known curator of ancient art, writer and Editor of the Philadelphia Ledger and Founder of the Archaeolgical Association (now the University Museum), was one of the most prominent citizens in the social, intellectual and political life of Philadelphia. Born in Paris, 1894, she was decorated by the Red Cross, and Republic of France for her war-relief efforts during World War I and honored by many other organizations for her support of women's suffrage, equal opportunity education and countless other public causes.
The table was then inherited by Cornelius and Sarah Yorke Stevenson's nephew, May Stevenson Easby (the son of Elizabeth Clifford Stevenson (b.1849) and John Holbrook Easby (1844-1922), m.1876). May Stevenson Easby and his wife Henrietta Meade Large (m.1916) then gave it to their son, the present owner, George G. Meade Easby (b.1918).
THE CORNELIUS STEVENSON CHIPPENDALE CARVED MAHOGANY CARD TABLE
American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament, New York City, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 26-May 17 and Los Angeles, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 5- September 27, 1992
28in. high, 36in. wide, 17in. deep
Conger, Clement, E. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York, 1981), entry 80.
Horner, William MacPherson. Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture (Washington, D.C.), p.152, pl.234.
Heckscher, Morrison H., and Bowman, Leslie Greene. American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York, 1992), p.195, fig.132.
By family tradition:
Cornelius Stevenson (d.1860), son or grandson
Adam May Stevenson (1806-1888), son
Cornelius S. Stevenson (d.1842), son
M. Stevenson Easby (d.1969), nephew
George G. Meade Easby (b.1918), son, current owner