Along with offering booths filled with fine antiques, artwork, and collectibles, the 36th Annual Holiday Antiques Show in Williamsburg, Virginia, enjoyed the presence of a piece of American Colonial furniture royalty. Known simply as the “Semple” kettle stand or table, the carved mahogany masterpiece is attributed to Robert Walker of King George County, Virginia, and dates to 1750-60. The stand was exhibited front and center in the booth of Wallace Gusler of Williamsburg, Virginia, author, furniture scholar, and historian.
This specific stand is well known. Its intricately carved top graced the cover of the May 1989 issue of The Magazine Antiques, where it was illustrated in Gusler’s article “The tea tables of eastern Virginia.” (At that time, this table and its kin were incorrectly attributed to the Williamsburg shop of Peter Scott.) In 2006 the stand was featured among the furniture illustrated in Robert Leath’s article in American Furniture, “Robert and William Walker and the ‘Ne Plus Ultra’: Scottish Design and Colonial Virginia Furniture, 1730-1775.” Leath again used the stand to illustrate his May 2008 article in The Magazine Antiques, “Servitude and Splendor: The craftsmen and the carved furniture of the Rappahannock River valley, 1740-1780.”
While there is agreement within the antique furniture community that this stand is indeed the work of the Walker shop, specifics of its travels are less precise. Oral history has it that the stand descended within the Semple family lineage, perhaps from the Reverend James Semple, a contemporary of Walker, and emerged with Eliza Semple in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the 1850s. Since leaving the Semple family, the stand has had only two known owners, both private and both Virginians.
The design and carving details of the stand are extraordinary. It stands 31¾" in height and has a 21" diameter top. There its simplicity ends. The piecrust edge is intricately carved with eight repeating leaf-like clusters joined by C- and S-scroll elements. All of that carving is slightly undercut, creating the illusion that the piecrust floats above the surface. The pillar is vasiform with simple ring turnings. The tripod legs are connected into the pillar with unreinforced dovetail joinery. The feet are somewhat elongated carved claws grasping compressed ball pads. The knees are deeply relief carved with detailed overlapping leaf designs.
The top of the Semple stand is a near match for that of the so-called Carter-Braxton tea table, also attributed to Robert Walker. Readers are likely familiar with the Carter-Braxton table. Its design has been adopted as the emblem used by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA).The Semple stand is the only known kettle stand among a large group of remarkably similar tables, all attributed to Robert Walker. (Two additional tea tables very similar in appearance to the Carter-Braxton table are illustrated in Leath’s 2006 American Furniture article.)
In e-mail correspondence following the Williamsburg show, Gusler related his experience of examining the Semple stand and the Carter-Braxton tea table: “We put the top of the kettle stand on top of the MESDA tea table and their piecrust edges matched very closely…. The individual carving cuts were so identical, it was quite convincing that these pieces were carved close together in time. Every cut was executed in like manner, strongly suggesting a quite intentional match.”
Many believe that these pieces of fine Colonial furniture were created in matching sets—tea table, kettle stand, and candlestand. While this seems to be a logical assumption based on their design, function, construction, and geography, the point is still a matter of ongoing research.
Over the years there have been a few alterations to the Semple stand. At some point, probably in the mid-20th century, it was likely refinished. Also, the point of attachment between the top and pillar has been stabilized and strengthened. And at the point where the knee carvings meet the pillar, a wedge-shape piece has been removed (perhaps as part of a repair) and replaced with a conforming but uncarved section.
Not only is this stand extremely beautiful and well constructed, it also represents an important part of the ever-expanding body of work and research related to Colonial furniture created within the Rappahannock River basin.
The Semple kettle stand was not a formal exhibit item at the Williamsburg show, however. It was offered for sale within Gusler’s booth. It may soon find its third modern-day owner. The price is $410,000.
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest