Early in 1993 I must have filled in my details and ticked a box somewhere because I began receiving flyers in the mail for the 1993 Melbourne Timber and Working with Wood Show. Virginia drew my attention to one of the categories entitled ‘Antique Reproductions’ and, ever the supportive soul, suggested I should enter a piece of furniture.
The end of the year approached and I hadn’t made anything to exhibit at the show. However, I eventually completed the requisite forms and entered a copy of a circa 1725 George I walnut bureau bookcase that I had made some years earlier.
Virginia and I attended the opening night and the awards ceremony. The speeches were the usual commendations of excellence, but the high note – actually, a low note – was a rather cutting comment regarding one of the entrants not having embraced the spirit of the event.
I didn’t win a prize (and having previewed the other entries, I didn’t honestly expect to), but I was utterly surprised when a ‘Sheraton gun cabinet’ won the Antique Reproductions category. I suppose it was no greater crime than the ‘Queen Anne TV cabinets’ and ‘Jacobean telephone tables’ that one used to see advertised in the back pages of the weekend colour supplements, but technically, it wasn’t a reproduction of… anything.
When the formal procedures wound up, Virginia and I perused the other exhibits together and were at the point of leaving for home when we noticed a small gathering round my bureau bookcase. One of the judges (the antiques expert) was holding court in front of my entry and was berating it as a badly restored antique and cited it as a possible marriage (of two separate pieces of furniture)! A number of people in the growing crowd of discontents were lending support to the belief and declaring it should never have been permitted entry in the competition.
Virginia and I beat a hasty retreat as I didn’t believe I could be improved by dangling on the end of a lynch mob’s rope.
The offending George I Walnut bureau bookcase reproduction.
I’m not normally a vindictive person, but I’ll be damned if some naff judge with scant appreciation of the category he was presiding over was going to make a liar and cheat out of me before the woodworkers of Melbourne! That Christmas, I took a few days off work to fell a European walnut tree (Juglans regia) and organize some timber in preparation for the next Working with Wood Show.
An historical prelude
With the explosion in popularity of tea and related equipage in the first half of the eighteenth century, tea tables became necessary accoutrements in many well-to-do houses in Britain and the American Colonies. English tea tables followed a fairly standard form being a folding square top on a rectangular frame, supported on four legs, with one or both back legs extending rearwards to support the top, hinged leaf when the table was opened up for use. When not in use, the table would sit against a wall or pier with the top leaf folded over the bottom one.
I settled on a George I walnut oyster-veneered tea table for my competition entry. The top and apron would be veneered with walnut oysters (veneer cut obliquely from small diameter branches, producing ovals resembling oysters), the inner faces of the leaves would be veneered with plain walnut and cross-banded, and the edges of the leaves would be cross-grain moulded with a simple flat D-moulding. The legs would be round and tapered, terminating in broad pad feet and lappets¹ would be carved into the tops of the legs at their juncture with the apron.
Constructing the table
To accompany my tea table, I decided to make a storyboard with step-by-step photos and descriptions of the entire creation process. I took photos at every stage of the construction; the conversion of the tree trunk into veneers, the preparation of the oysters, the making of the oak frame, the making of the brass hinges and the hand filing of the steel screws that secured the hinges in place.
Unfortunately, by the opening of the show, the storyboard had disappeared along with all the photos, but I recently came across some photos of the table that weren’t included on the storyboard.
The components of one of the English oak table leaves.
One of the frame rails veneered with walnut oysters.
Laying out the oysters on the upper face of the top leaf.
The inner faces of both leaves were veneered with walnut veneers about 3/32″ (2.4mm) thick (in keeping with eighteenth-century hand-cut veneers).
Veneering the lower face of the top leaf.
One of the four hinge blanks cut from a cast sheet of authentically alloyed brass.
One of the hinges assembled, though requiring final filing, buffing and ageing.
All scraped and cleaned up.
The tea table in-the-white and ready for finishing.
I would be severely judged on this piece, so all surfaces were heavily aged and distressed, the brass hinges were patinated and the hand-cut steel screws were all rusted appropriately.
The finished tea table.
Cross-grain moulding on the edges of the leaves.
Aged and distressed surface of table top.
In light of the shenanigans of the previous year’s Timber and Working with Wood Show, neither my tea table nor pedanticism was ever going to curry favour with the show’s judges as it was perfectly clear why I had gone to such lengths to spell everything out, but nonetheless, I entered the tea table into the Antique Reproduction category of the 1994 Melbourne Working with Wood Show. It didn’t win a prize.
A related story
On the same weekend of the Melbourne Working with Wood Show we happened to be moving house. I have a copy of an early eighteenth-century elm bacon cupboard that I made and in the course of moving, it ended up in the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings along with the walnut tea table due to a misunderstanding with the removers. I considered it would have been too costly to send the removers back to retrieve the cupboard, so after a few pleading phone calls, it too was allowed entry in the show. It won second prize.
The somewhat overlooked but prize-winning elm cupboard.
1. Lappets were a popular feature of pad-foot tea tables, in imitation of cut-card work on silverware, and were thus quite appropriate on a table to be used for serving tea. See 18TH CENTURY ENGLISH FURNITURE The Norman Adams Collection, Christopher Claxton Stevens & Stewart Whittington, p. 283.