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image icon Tilt-top table, 1878

Tilt-top table, 1878
Art Gallery of South Australia

Description

This is a spectacular round-topped wooden table made in Adelaide in the later part of the 19th century. It is quite large, measuring 76.5 cm x 135.5 cm in diameter, and could seat a number of people, but is generally regarded as having been made as a display or feature item. The deep undulating skirting that runs beneath the top and the bulky centre columns and three feet reinforce the idea that this item of furniture was not for everyday use as a dining or games table. Hidden from sight is a pull handle that is recessed at the top of the centre column and used to tilt the tabletop into a vertical position - a useful feature if ever the table needed to be moved from one place to another. It also means that the spectacular circular design on the tabletop can be viewed easily. Everything about the styling of this table looks to be dominated by curves, particularly the recessed tabletop skirting and the three carved legs that spring from the centre column like unfurling elephants' trunks. The table's designers and makers, Henry Hugentobler (working 1878-91) and Conrad Sturm (1851-1907), spared no effort in making it look as spectacular as possible by using a process known as marquetry to decorate most of its surface with a mosaic of thousands of very small units of wood veneer in differently coloured Australian timbers.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is the most elaborate example of 19th-century South Australian furniture to survive
  • references the skills brought into colonial South Australia by German migrants - around 200 of the German cabinet-makers who came to South Australia settled in country areas and produced a wide variety of household furniture in a diversity of styles ranging from very sturdy and plain functional items such as cabinets and wardrobes to very stylish and decorated items such as this marquetry table
  • references the role played in the Australian colonies by several intercolonial and international exhibitions during the second half of the 19th century - such exhibitions provided cabinet-makers with the opportunity to make extravagantly decorated pieces of furniture to show off their design and technical skills; this marquetry table was exhibited in both Sydney and Melbourne international exhibitions - at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 it was priced at ₤75
  • is an impressive achievement, both in its design and technical construction - it is claimed that this table contains 30,000 pieces of timber
  • represents a public taste for technical virtuosity, which reached a peak around the period in which the table was made - this item of furniture was described in an Adelaide journal as a 'splendid specimen of skill' that 'requires to be seen to be appreciated'
  • references a design-related issue (the relationship between form and function in a designed object), which continues to be debated in contemporary life - one criticism made of this table at the time was that it illustrated 'a widely prevalent error, namely, that the value of a manufactured article is in proportion to the amount of labour bestowed upon it … As an example of patient ingenuity, the table deserves every praise, but as a specimen of taste or skill properly applied it occupies an inferior position'
  • is a tangible reminder of the traditions and culture brought to Australia, particularly South Australia, by German migrants - by 1891 the population of German descent in the state was as high as 9 per cent; South Australian country districts, notably the Barossa Valley and Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, attracted large numbers of German settlers, many of whom produced German crafts, particularly furniture.