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Seay, William __Attributed to
Place Made:
Bertie County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut, yellow pine & walnut second
HOA: 29; WOA: 37 1/4; DOA: 27
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Demilune table: Edge of half-round top molded except at back; molded apron (top and bottom) enclosing single drawer with applied square molded edge; apron and drawer faced with thick vertical veneer strips, those tacked on with sprigs; sightly tapered legs connected with arched, scalloped stretcher with ivory turned button at junction where they cross; decorated with six open brackets at leg-apron junction.

CONSTRUCTION: While the form of this table is a very sophisticated blending of the Rococo and Neoclassical styles, actual construction indicates a lack of understanding on the part of the cabinetmaker regarding the application of Neoclassical detail. The frame of the table is composed of heavy walnut laminates, not unusual for a curved frame, but in this instance the laminates are held together with 12 long rivets from top to bottom rather than with glue. The veneer itself, rather than the usual sheet veneer used for such work, is composed of thick vertical pieces nailed in place on both the frame and drawer front. The table utilizes filet molding (like that on the cellaret, MESDA Acc. 2908), instead of cockbead, as drawer surround, and turned bone button ornament at the center of arched stretchers.

FORM: This piece is based on the large demilune pier tables popularized by Robert Adam in England after the mid-1770s and usually made in large urban areas. MESDA knows of no stylistic parallel to this table, particularly its unusual construction. This is the only demilune table known to have survived from the WH Group.

GROUP: Several dozen pieces have been attributed to the same shop, including several desks, secretary presses, press-on-chests, cellarets, corner cupboards, a skein winder, and several other forms. A cellaret (Acc. 2908), a corner cupboard (Acc. 906), and a desk on loan (Acc. 5895) are part of the MESDA collection. Particular construction characteristics of this man’s work include an almost fanatic use of nails and screws rather than glue for attaching both interior and exterior elements, the use of walnut for drawer sides, and generally massive construction with unusually heavy blocking.

Also highly characteristic of this maker is his use of turned bone button inlets. Here he uses this technique at the crossing joints of the table; he uses the same technique on cellaret stretchers.

MAKER: This unusual table is one of a large group of furniture that has been attributed by Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor to the cabinetmaker and housebuilder William Seay of Bertie County, NC. They base their attribution on the fact that Seay’s scratched signature is on a drawer interior in a secretary press now at Historic Hope Plantation. MESDA’s corner cupboard by this maker bears the initials “WH” inlaid in a white gesso-like material. Nearly a dozen pieces attributed by Newbern and Melchor to Seay have similar inlaid initials; eight of them are inlaid with the initials “WH.” Newbern and Melchor have identified “WH” as the initials of Whitmell Hill (1743-1797) of Martin County, North Carolina. They argue that Hill, a wealthy planter, merchant, and politician, probably commissioned Seay to build houses and furniture for himself and his four children, emblazoned with his own initials. They suggest that the fifteen stars inlaid on the cornice of a related corner cupboard by Seay are a patriotic motif suggesting a 1792-1796 date of manufacture. Further information on William Seay as maker of this group can be found in Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor, WH CABINETMAKER: A SOUTHERN MYSTERY SOLVED, 2009.

In the 2013 edition of the Chipstone Journal, AMERICAN FURNITURE, edited by Luke Beckerdite, authors F. Carey Howlett and Kathy Z. Gillis argue that William Seay is not the maker of this large group in their article, “Scientific Imaging Techniques and New Insights on the WH Cabinetmaker: A Southern Mystery Continues.”

This table belonged to David Clark (1772-1829) and his wife, Louisa Norfleet (1789-1828), of Albin Plantation in Halifax County, NC, who were married on September 2, 1806. Its original owners were probably Louisa’s parents, Marmaduke Norfleet (1766-1818) and his wife, Hannah Ruffin, or her grandparents, Captain James Smith (1720-1811) and his wife, Sarah (Hill) Ruffin Smith, who also owned MESDA’s cellaret (Acc. No. 2908) which is monogrammed with their initials, “JSS.” Because of the close design similarities and genealogical connection, the table and the cellaret might well have been made for the same house originally.

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund