Review by John Hays
American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University

David L. Barquist. American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1992. 423 pp. ; 30 color and numerous bw illustrations, line drawings, appendixes, bibliography, index. $65.00.

David L. Barquist’s American Tables and Looking Glasses is the fourth catalogue in a series covering the American furniture collections at Yale University. Beautifully presented and intelligently written, it follows in the scholarly tradition of its predecessors: Edwin A. Battison and Patricia E. Kane’s The American Clock, 1725–1865: The Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (1972); Patricia E. Kane’s 300 Years of American Seating Furniture: Chairs and Beds from the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (1976); and Gerald W. R. Ward’s American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (1988).

The comprehensive catalogue entries and excellent photography in American Tables and Looking Glasses constitute an invaluable reference, not only for the Yale collections, but for related objects in other institutions and private collections. The tables and looking glasses are arranged first by form, then by style and place of manufacture if, as in the case of neoclassical card tables, there are enough objects to warrant such divisions. Each entry specifies the period term of the object, maker (if known), place of origin, date of manufacture, materials, and dimensions, followed by detailed descriptions of the structure, condition, and provenance. Inscriptions, exhibition histories, and publication references are also given where appropriate.

The accompanying photographs consist of overalls and details carefully chosen to illustrate important points in the text. For example, a rare southern baroque oval table with falling leaves (cat. 43)—popularly referred to as a William and Mary gate-leg table—is illustrated open in color and black and white, closed, and upside-down to show the unusual draw-leg support. Photographs of related objects in other collections and additional close-ups and color illustrations of construction details, carving, turning, and inlay would have improved the catalogue, but space, budgets, and price constraints are a factor in any publication.

Engraved designs from British pattern books, prints, and paintings complement Barquist’s excellent analysis of European influences on American furniture, both in design and use. The entry for a classical New York card table (cat. 120) is especially noteworthy in identifying the probable design source as Nicholas de Launay or Claude Ballin’s illustration of two silver console tables made between 1670 and 1680 for the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. Such information is very helpful in placing American furniture in a more global context.

The individual entries in American Tables and Looking Glasses are extremely well researched, with abundant references from primary sources—particularly from city directories, inventories, pattern and price books, letters, and newspaper advertisements—and published works. Not only do these entries record the physical properties of each object but they contain detailed discussions of related examples, structural and decorative options available to patrons (see cat. 108), and patterns of use. They also complement Barquist’s interpretive essays examining the social and cultural factors that influenced the development and evolution of each major table and looking-glass form.

The chapter on looking glasses has a lengthy introduction with sections devoted to terminology and connoisseurship. Barquist’s analyses of the importation of European looking glasses (primarily British), the technological and economic factors that made it difficult for American tradesmen to compete with imports, the problem of relying solely on woods to determine nationality (because woods were exported to Britain and some related American and European species are indistinguishable microscopically), and the absence of identifiable American looking-glass styles caution professionals and novices against making hasty conclusions about place of origin. At Christie’s we have found that reliable attributions depend on wood analysis combined with a thorough understanding of structure, carving, and gilding techniques. Using this methodology, we were able to identify not only the city of origin (Philadelphia) but the carving shop (James Reynolds) that produced an important carved white rococo looking glass that sold at our gallery in January 1991. Catalogues like American Tables and Looking Glasses provide the source material that make such determinations possible.

Although every section in the book is noteworthy, the essay titled “Pillar Looking Glasses” (pp. 323–25) is a fascinating history of design and one of the few areas where objects outside the Yale collections are illustrated. Barquist discusses the British neoclassical origins of this form, the importation and sale of pillar looking glasses in the colonies, and American regional variants. With reverse-painted glass panels, carved ornaments, and relatively generic architectural elements, pillar looking glasses were intended to complement other furnishings and architectural details. A Plan & Section of a Drawing Room from Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (1793)—one of the earliest depictions of a pillar looking glass—makes the point abundantly clear.

In addition to Barquist’s excellent research, American Tables and Looking Glasses contains brilliant essays by Gerald W. R. Ward and Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett. Ward’s “The Intersections of Life: Tables and Their Social Role” takes up where his essay for Yale’s case furniture catalogue left off (see “Matter in Place: Some Thoughts on Case Furniture”). In “Intersections of Life,” Ward uses the evolution of the table (in terms of size, shape, materials, etc.) to explore broader historical, social, and cultural topics such as human behavior, philosophy, social and familial hierarchies, and perceptions of equality and status. Drawing on modern studies of proxemics—the manner by which people “establish territories, create privacy, avoid intrusions, and . . . regulate their interaction with others” (p. 18)—and research into changing attitudes toward dining, card playing, and social interaction from the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, he demonstrates that furniture forms are intimately related to social relationships and attitudes about correctness. To use a simple example, rectangular table tops suggest formality and hierarchy, whereas round or oval ones have the opposite effect.

Garrett’s introductory essay, “Looking Glasses in America, 1700–1850,” eloquently reveals how “the looking glass . . . bespeaks ritual and symbolic meaning as much as utility and household use, metaphor as much as mirror” (p. 27). Using information from inventories, diaries, housekeeping guides, and other period documents, Garrett shows how looking glasses evolved from pocket size to full length and how they became reflections of status, both personal and societal. She also ties the proliferation of looking glasses and the evolution of accompanying forms, such as dressing tables, dressing glasses, and commodes, with increased concerns for personal hygiene. Even the problems of caring for looking glasses—subjected as they were to the vagaries of climate, clumsy owners and servants, and neglect—are covered in this excellent essay.

In recent years, museum catalogues have been criticized for being descriptive rather than interpretive and for being somewhat redundant; yet, they are essential references for academics, curators, auction professionals, dealers, and collectors. The objects illustrated and described in them are the building blocks for books and articles on individual tradesmen, shops, and regional groups; technology, industry, and connoisseurship; consumerism and patronage; and the social and cultural implications of material culture. With its thought-provoking essays, interpretive catalogue entries, and excellent photography, American Tables and Looking Glasses is a testimony to the importance of collection catalogues, both public and private.

John Hays

American Furniture 1994