The Gate-Leg Table
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE gate-leg table, regarded with veneration by many collectors, has a charm of style and beauty of construction which afford never-ending delight to possessors of old examples. It is an inspired piece of joiners' work which may be identified with the middle of the seventeenth century, and exhibits the supreme effort of the early Jacobean craftsmen to break away from the massive square table, the lineal descendant of the great bulbous-legged table of the Elizabethan hall. Dining-tables with a sliding device to draw out as occasion required, became a necessity even in early days. It is a note indicating the changing habits of the people. A table was no longer used for one purpose. The large table required a permanent place in a large room. But smaller houses had their limitations of space, and so the ingenuity of a table that would close together and stand against a wall, or could be used as a round table for dining, was a welcome innovation.
The series of illustrations in this chapter afford a fairly comprehensive survey of the progress and differing character of the gate-leg table during the hundred years that it held its place in the sphere of domestic furniture. It is difficult to say with exactitude which are the earliest forms, or whether the round table without the moving gates was a sort of transitional form prior to the use of the movable legs. It is quite possible that in his attempt to invent something more convenient than the heavy square dining-table the progressive cabinetmaker of the middle seventeenth century did strike the half-way form. But on the other hand it must be admitted that there is the possibility that the gate-leg table came first, and that the types with three legs and half circular tops stand by themselves as later types. On the whole, one is inclined to the belief, especially as it prettily illustrates forms of natural evolution, that the three-legged table with fixed legs and half round top came first.
The side-table illustrated on page 61 belongs to this three-legged type. The three legs are stationary and the top forms a deep box. This particular table is in date about the middle of the seventeenth century and does not help towards a solution of the problem; but it is an interesting piece.
Not only is the feeling towards the gradual establishment of the new form of table shown in its construction, first with four legs until it developed into a table with twelve legs and double gates, but the styles of ornament used in the turning differ greatly in character. The leg is capable of wide and differing treatment. There is the urn leg, a rare and early type, the ball turned leg, egg-and-reel turned leg, and the straight leg. In regard to the stretcher similar varieties occur. Sometimes it is entirely plain, and when it is decoratively turned it varies from the early survival of the Gothic trestle to the rare cross stretcher of the late collapsible table. In some types of Yorkshire tables the stretchers are splat-form, like a ladder-back chair. The feet differ in no less degree from the usual Jacobean type to the scroll or Spanish foot at a later date. In the early eighteenth century there is the interesting series of flap tables which have gate-legs. Some have the bottom stretcher to the gate-leg. These belong to the walnut period, when a greater vivacity became noticeable in English cabinet work.
It is this picturesque and endless stream of designs which appeals to the collector. It is quite worthy of study to follow the difference in the cabinet-work of these gate tables. The long line of craftsmen who fashioned them added here and there not only touches of ornament that were personal, but invented details of construction as improvements to existing forms.
A very early type is that with flat urn-shaped legs, having plain gates. It is usually small in size and belongs to the first half of the seventeenth century. The use of the Gothic trestle foot in this and other early types is a note-worthy feature. Of these early tables there is that with a single turned leg at each end, the gates being square and plain and the legs set firmly upon the trestle foot. The table illustrated on page 63 is typical of these small tables which may be dated about the middle of the seventeenth century.
The various improvements and the slightly differing characteristics make it perfectly clear, when examined in detail, that the gate table in various parts of the country had firmly established itself and had won popular approval as a permanent type by the mid-seventeenth century. In the search for tables of this form, however wide the net is spread by those indefatigable seekers in out-of-the-way places, and by the small army of trade collectors who scour the country for the purpose of unearthing some-thing rare and unique, the story is always the same. In the most remote districts such tables are still found : the growth of the use of this gate-leg form permeated every part of the country. It was copied and re-copied, native touches were added, and the old leading lines followed by generation after generation of craftsmen. It had as great a vogue during the long period of its history as the styles of Chippendale chairs had at a later date, when every country cabinetmaker was seized with the desire to produce minor " Chippendale" in oak or beech or elm.
Essentially the flower of the popular creations of the Carolean furniture-designer, the gate table must always stand as reminiscent of the days of Charles I and Charles II. No picture of this period is considered factually complete unless there be a gate-leg table with its picturesque lines adding a technical touch of correctness to interiors. The portrait of Hetrick, the parson-poet of Devon, imaginative though it be, whenever it appears on canvas or illustrating his lyrics, shows the poet beside a fine gate-leg table. Stage tradition is equally sure on the same point. A company of swaggering cavaliers at an inn is not complete without a group arranged at one of these tables quaffing wine from flagons.
Without doubt the finest examples are to be found from the year 1660 to the end of the reign of Charles II. A new impetus had been given to furniture-making in Restoration days. The country had settled down in tranquillity and the domestic arts began again to thrive in natural manner following the earlier motives of the days of Charles I. The recent civil wars had arrested their development, and now they burst forth again with renewed youth.
Examples of the best period may be assigned to the last three or four decades of the seventeenth century. These, it should be explained, are in oak. We illustrate (p. 67) a particularly pleasing specimen with double gates which belongs to this finest period. There are, it will be observed, twelve legs, and the stretchers are finely turned with what is known as the egg-and-reel pattern.
Another rare form has double gates, and stretchers similarly turned. There is only one flap to this table, and it has a rectangular instead of a circular top. Tables with one flap are always rare, and when found they usually have two gates.
It will be seen that there are pleasant surprises in following changing forms all through the period. On page 69 a table is illustrated which exhibits florid turning in the legs. The stretchers across the two legs are half way up and are the Yorkshire form of splat stretcher. This type is found as early as 1660 and as late as 1750.
As exhibiting two types as wide asunder as the Poles, and yet not far removed in point of time the two tables illustrated (p. 73), make a curious contrast. The upper one in date about 1650, is a slender, graceful example, with the gates both at one end. The lower table, of late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, is a somewhat primitive form, with the gates also both at one end. This has obviously been made by a local carpenter or wheelwright not conversant with turning, as the shape of the leg is strongly suggestive of the rude fashioning of the shafts of a farm wagon.
As the century draws on to its last quarter, and walnut becomes the wood chiefly used in ornamental turned work, so the character of the gate table begins to incline towards the technique more suitable to walnut than to oak. The turning, more easily done in the former wood, becomes more intricate. Hence some examples appear which are practically types of the walnut age. But, in general, the old gate-leg table survives throughout the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods, wherein country makers clung to the oak form and employed oak still in its manufacture.
The days of mahogany, with Chippendale in his prime and Hepplewhite, Ince and Mayhew; Robert Manwaring, Matthias Lock, William Shearer, and a crowd of others, brought intricate carving in mahogany into intense prominence. This was the golden age of furniture design. An outburst of enthusiasm, following the architectural triumphs of the Brothers Adam, wherein they raised interior decoration to a level as high as that in France, had swept over the country. In spite of the rich profusion of new design being poured out in illustrated volumes and in executed furniture, the old gate-leg table still survived. In form it was the same, but the richness of the new wood was too enticing for the cabinet-maker not to employ it. Accordingly we find examples in mahogany.
In the Chippendale period X-shaped, cluster-leg, gate tables are found, and turning was used in this cluster-leg form. The inventiveness shown in such a device as the gate-leg table was too evident to escape adoption by famous makers. When ingenuity of construction was at its zenith the gate-leg was not likely to be discarded in fashionable furniture.
It is natural to ask the reason why the gate table had such a prolonged life. It passed through several strong periods of fashionable styles that were superseded in turn by newer designs. The reason is not far to seek. It survived because the public could not do without it. There must have been a continuous demand, unchecked by the excitements of contemporary substitutes. But apparently there was nothing to take its place, or which could permanently supplant it. Its utility is undoubtedly one of its most marked features. This alone affected its stability as a possession with which the farmer's wife and the cottager would not part. Customs long established in the country were not easily discontinued. Mother, daughter, and granddaughter clung to the old and practical form of table. Nowadays there are families in the shires whom nothing would induce to sell their old gate tables. Partly this is for love of the old home, but mainly is it the common-sense attitude which rebels against the sale of any piece of furniture which is in constant use. Many objects long gone into disuse, but really valuable from an artistic point of view, are readily dispensed with. The cottager imagines that, if he disposes of a mere ornament for a sum of money with which he can buy something useful, he has effected a good "deal."
So much for its utility. Its beauty is a quality which has appealed to persons of higher artistic instincts. It is not the quaintness, because there are scores of other objects equally quaint, nor is it altogether the antiquity, though, of course, nowadays that is a determining factor, but it is the actual symmetry of form and ingenious form of construction, enhanced by the wide range of decorative treatment, which irresistibly appeal to the lover of the beautiful. These manifold reasons, therefore, endowed the gate-leg table with great vitality. Its hold on the people was not relaxed till the age of the factory-made furniture. The banalities of the early-Victorian period, which destroyed taste in persons of finer susceptibilities than the common folk, supplanted the old historic form, and it was made no more.
After William Morris and his school had preached the revival of taste and the return to the simple and the beautiful, and Ruskin with flowing rhetoric had instilled a love for home-spun into men's minds, there came newer ideals which, with gradual dissemination, grew into a great modern movement which became so overwhelmingly popular that the pendulum swung the other way. It became almost a truism that the person of taste saw nothing good in anything that was not old. With this in view, artists and persons of advanced notions, if they could not procure the old, had copies made for them of some of the most beautiful styles suitable for modern requirements. In this there was always the great Morrisian principle in view that the highest art must show a full utilitarian purpose; so it came about that the gate table was revived and came gloriously into its own again. Today, as in the seventeenth century, there is no more popular form of table, and the modern cabinetmaker is manufacturing hundreds of these tables.
The life-history of the gate-leg table is, therefore, shown to be an interesting one. It is one of our oldest forms, and its construction nowadays, save that it is now produced in a factory, is singularly similar to that in the days when Oliver Cromwell was establishing our power as a voice in Europe, when James II had an eye towards the supremacy of our navy, and when later our troops fought in Flanders.