At the outset of each of the preceding chapters the plan has been adopted of commencing with a definition of the terms which it is proposed to use, with the idea of demonstrating what is included and also what is excluded. Tables, far from offering an exception to this practice, require exact definition, if we are to exclude such articles as chests and similar articles, which, although in no sense of the word tables, were frequently used as such. The name " table," in fact, implies both an article of furniture and a function (i.e. a piece which serves as a table, but is not really one). Strict definition, therefore, becomes not only desirable, but also necessary, if confusion is to be avoided. Some overlapping of types, in the case of cupboard-tables, or chair-tables, is inevitable, and it is often a nice point to determine whether such pieces should be referred to as chests, cupboards or chairs. The limitation, thus implied, can be expressed in the clearest manner, by a recital of the types which shall include all the various descriptions of tables, to be illustrated in this chapter. These may be roughly summarised as follows : (1) Trestle tables, composed of tops, supported at their ends, or if of great length, at intervals, by vertical boards, or constructions of boards, placed at right angles to the length of the top, e.g. Fig. 125.
(2) Trestle tables, where the supports are at the centre of each end, but with stretcher rails fixed parallel to the length of the top, generally on its central line, the trestles having cross-pieces, on the floor level, to give stability, e.g. Fig. 127.
(4) Tables of variable length, or with extending tops. This type includes the draw-table, where an additional section can be pulled out at each end from under the main top, to increase its length, e.g. Fig. 129, or those with hinged fall-down or fold-over flaps such as the gate-leg or the folding card table.
(5) Tables with central turned legs, usually of heavy type, placed centrally under the top on its length, supported on cross-pieces on the floor. (Genuine tables of this kind are excessively rare.)
(6) Tables, usually small, which are supported on a central pillar, with either a heavy base, or a tripod. These are usually, if not entirely, of the later eighteenth century, and will not concern us in this chapter.
There are many examples which are merely variations of the foregoing, such as the triangular table with three legs, the hexagonal with six, etc., and also the hybrid forms of the chair-table or bench-table, with a hinged top to form a table when down and a back to the chair or bench when raised. This latter type will be found in the chapter devoted to chairs. Distinction of purpose, e.g. dining, writing, tea, card or side tables, are ignored here as they have nothing to do with the present definition.
It is also obvious, in this book, that we are dealing only with the table made from wood, other materials, such as cane, iron, stone or marble do not concern us at present, although it may be noted, on passant, that in the seventeenth century some tables were made of silver.
That tables, in any form, are of great antiquity in England, is doubtful. If they were known in the thirteenth century, for example, it is remarkable that none have survived, as other thirteenth-century woodwork has, of a character much more frail and perishable than an early oak table would have been. A somewhat hazardous speculation may be ventured here, that the large block, or cross-section of a tree-trunk sometimes to be found in butchers' shops, may be a survival of the primitive English table. In the ages when other furniture, such as chests and even pulpits, were hewn from the solid wood, a table made by the same method may have been similar to this butcher's block. Even had such pieces survived, their identity as tables might not be suspected. That the large coffers, such as the example in Westminster Abbey, which is upwards of thirteen feet in length, may also have acted as tables, when not in use as chests, is possible, as the seats may have been low stools. We know that chairs were not used for this purpose.
Fig. 125. Oak Trestle-Table Of Heavy Type. - This was the usual form of the early fifteenth century
Fig. 126. oak tables and forms, with elm tops. - Late fifteenth century. Bablake Schools, Coventry.
Fig. 127. Oak Trestle Table Of Light Type. - 7 ft. long by 2 ft. 3 ins. deep by 2 ft. 6 ins. high. Early sixteenth century. - Lord Cowdray.
Fig. 128. Oak Table (One-Half Only). - Originally 20 ft. long by 2 ft. 7 ins. deep by 2 ft. 10 ins. high. Top 4 ins. thick. - The Marquis of Townshend.
In the development of table-types, we are compelled to begin with those of trestle form, such as Fig. 125, and to assume that this is the primitive English table. The supports to the heavy top are massive baulks of oak, buttressed on the fronts and backs and at each end, with separate shaped brackets, all cut from oak of large scantling. At Penshurst are two of these huge Gothic tables, similar to the one illustrated here, but of lighter construction, in proportion to their size, which is enormous. The top of one of these tables measures over twenty-seven feet in length by three in width. In spite of this great size, the top has only the one central support, as in the example shown here. These trestle tables are, originally, of late fourteenth-century date, but none of this period appear to have survived, unless we place the Penshurst tables as early as this. Elm was frequently used for these great tops. An example exists at Bishops Farm, Windsor, where the top is some nine feet in length by three in width, and nearly six inches in thickness, in the one piece, hewn from a mighty elm trunk. It is in fair preservation, in spite of the wood. Unfortunately, elm perishes if not kept actually immersed in water. A plank suspended lengthwise, and without touching the ground, will rot at its lower end, after a comparatively short space of time. In spite of this drawback, or because of this property of the timber not being known, elm was frequently used for the tops of early tables. The wood is not nearly so slow in growth as oak, and the tree is shallow rooted. A violent storm will blow down an elm where it will leave an oak untouched. Elm trees, being thus felled in this manner, would be used, in all probability, instead of oak, for the reason that they were ready to hand, and did not require the laborious cutting down which was necessary in the case of a full-grown oak.
Fig. 129. Oak Table And Form (With Later Draw-Top). - Table 2 ft. 10 1/2 ins. high, 5 ft. 2 ins. long by 1 ft. 8 1/2 ins. deep. Form 1 ft. 11 ins. high, 5 ft. 5 ins. wide by 9 1/2 ins. deep. - Victoria and Albert Museum.