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Best of Treasures: Unique table with decorative wood burning meant for decoration

Tribune News Service logoTribune News Service 1 day ago Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson, Tribune News Service
"Fire writing" can be very expensive. © Handout/TNS/TNS "Fire writing" can be very expensive.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published Oct. 19, 2020.)

Dear Helaine and Joe:

Attached are photos of a tilt-top table I inherited. I have no information about its origins or what the decoration might be. There are no markings. Can you enlighten me?

Thank you in advance,

L. P.

Dear L. P.

This is one of those moments when we look at a series of photographs and get a little bug-eyed as we say, "Wow! This is truly unique." By this we mean that this table is a one of a kind and is decorated in a surprising fashion.

Interestingly, this table probably started out its life as a plain, early 20th century reproduction of a mid to late 18th century English, mahogany, George III, tilt-top supper table. We suspect that originally this table's top was as flat and undecorated as a piece of blank paper.

Supper in the mid-18th century was a family affair and was sometimes served - at least in upscale households - on tilt-top supper tables that were stored with the top tilted up against a wall when not in use. The tops of the supper tables were often elaborately carved with fans, scrolls and floral decorations along with low galleried circular reserves around the outer edge.

No one would put a cloth on such a table because it would hide the beauty of the piece of furniture, and the round reserves were clearly designed to hold plates on the table in a secure fashion. The reserves around the edge on the table in today's question, however, are not round but more the shape of a rounded baseball diamond, which would make this essentially useless as a supper table.

Instead, this table was meant for decoration and not for serious daily use. The baseball diamond-shaped reserves and the table's center have circular examples of pyrography, or decorative wood burning. This craft was a popular hobby from the late 19th century into the 1920's, and we feel that the pyrographer may have carved the table-top as well.

The carving itself is mostly shallow and lacking in professional skill or training, so we feel this is a wonderful piece of American folk art circa 1920. True, it is a little jarring to see the lovely cabriole legs with their paw feet, the swirl carved vasiform pedestal that terminates in an 18th century-esque "bird cage" (i.e. the boxlike structure under the tabletop with the four stubby supports) juxtaposed with the very early 20th century carving and pyrography.

Pyrography or "fire writing" has been around since ancient times, but most examples collectors see today are products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It took us a while to see that each of the pyrography roundels were made of a lighter colored wood than the mahogany and inserted or inlaid into the tabletop.

The subject matter is generally water-themed with boats, but there is at least one roundel with the image of two horsemen who appear to be conversing. The quality of the artwork varies from the detailed to little more than sketchy. It is a shame that the piece is not signed by the artist because that would have enhanced the value considerably.

Still, this piece is very unusual and should be valued in the $1,000-$1,500 range.

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