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Pier Table

On view

Pier Table

Date: 1825
Medium: Mahogany, black ash, eastern white pine, yellow poplar, marble, glass, gilded gesso, gilded bronze, gilding
Overall: 38 7/8 x 46 1/4 x 19 1/8in. (98.7 x 117.5 x 48.6cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 59.125
Label Text
Some objects survive with fascinating histories. Betsy and William Randall purchased this pier table and a pier mirror around 1828 to furnish their Cortland, New York, home. In a 1928 history of the Randall mansion, area historian and former newspaper editor Edward D. Blodgett stated that the Randalls had gone by stage, packet boat, and steamship to New York "to buy suitable furniture for their pretentious dwelling."

Pier tables and pier mirrors are so named because they were intended to be placed in a room--such as the parlor--between two windows, in a space called the "pier" in architectural terminology. The gilded detailing on the table and the mirrored surface would reflect light for practical purposes and for decorative effect.

Text Entries

This table and its mate, a pair of matching center tables, and two pier mirrors were part of the original furnishings of the 1828 Cortland, New York, mansion of William Randall and his wife Betsey (Bassett) Randall.(1) These items were featured in a private sale in November 1985 following the death of Marian B. Wilson, the last member of the Randall family to live in the magnificent house.(2) According to the sale notice, “The pieces offered . . . are all from the furnishings of the Randall home and were reserved by the Randall heirs when the less sophisticated things were sold at auction a few weeks ago.”(3)

William Randall and his brother Roswell, both of whom came to Cortland in 1812 from Stonington, Connecticut, built a general store that flourished at an auspicious location near the banks of the Tioughnioga River. William later founded the Randall Bank, and Roswell built the Eagle Store and served as the town’s postmaster. The brothers also had extensive landholdings in the southern and eastern parts of Cortland.(4)

William and Betsey Randall built two houses on Main Street, one in 1821 (sold to Roswell Randall in 1828) and another, next door to the first, in 1828. In a 1928 history of the William Randall mansion, local historian and former newspaper editor Edward D. Blodgett stated that Betsey and William Randall had gone by stage, packet boat, and steamship to New York “to buy suitable furniture for their pretentious dwelling.” They purchased the most “beautiful things which the city afforded,” Blodgett wrote, and added that it took months to haul these goods “by river, canal and land” back to the “country, which, less than 25 years before had been a forest wilderness.” The furnishings were “for the long drawing room of the Randall mansion, occupying the south side of the house,” which in 1928 was “still furnished as William Randall designed it, 100 years ago.” He commented on the Randalls’ excellent taste and noted that the drawing room contained “flowered carpets . . . long peer [sic] mirrors with onyx console tables at their bases . . . Empire chairs and . . . long red damask draperies at the windows,” all “perfect examples of the best styles of Empire interior decorations of that early period.”(5) The MWPI pier table is one of the “onyx console tables” Blodgett mentioned.

While pier tables of this overall form must have been ubiquitous in fine New York houses of the period, the Randall table is a superior example, distinguished by its rosewood veneer, black-veined marble top, front columns with elaborate gilt bronze capitals and bases, carved and gilded conical feet, and the formalized gilt rinceaux decorations on the apron and platform.(6) Considering the options available to a prospective buyer of fine furniture in New York City in the 1820s, the Randalls clearly chose the finest that money could buy. Although the name of the maker is unknown, the Randalls’ suite is remarkable for the story of its journey from New York to Cortland and for its pristine provenance.

The freehand gilding on this pier table is skillfully executed and employs classical motifs derived from European pattern books of the time. lmitating French and English ormolu mounts, freehand gilding, according to furniture conservator Cynthia Moyer, was achieved by “applying gold leaf to an oil size painted in a pattern on a smooth two-dimensional surface. Over the leaf, thin, dark lines were then either etched with a stylus or painted in with a fine brush, making the oil-gilded decoration look three dimensional.(7) It is possible that the decorator used pin pricks and lithopone to transfer patterns of symmetrical classical motifs onto the surface of the table. This provided an outline for the craftsman who completed the final design by hand.(8)

Essay by Page Talbott

 1. Herbert L. Smith, Private Sale of Important Antiques from the Randall Mansion, Cortland, NY, Beginning Friday, November 15, 1935; photocopy, MWPI research files. One of the pier tables and one of the center tables are pictured in the photographs that illustrate the sale notice. One of the pier glasses made by Isaac Platt of New York—in the MWPI collection (see cat. no. 9)—is pictured hanging over the pier table. The matching pier table and one of the center tables were offered for sale by Robert Thomas and Robert Seifert in 1975; see Antiques 107, no. 4 (October 1975): 628.

2. Mrs. Wilson was the wife of John F. Wilson (d. 1911), the adopted son of Wilhelmina Randall, William and Betsey (Bassett) Randall’s unmarried daughter.

3. According to the sale notice, “The house has been continuously occupied by important families since 1828 and appreciative and loving hands have watched over it and its contents. Every piece offered is in fine, usable condition. Seldom does the opportunity come to acquire important pieces like these that have been continuously owned by the same family and graced the house from which they are sold for more than a century” (Smith, Private Sale). The pier and center tables were among the contents of the drawing room and were valued at a total of $400. Photographs in the Cortland County Historical Society, taken sometime between 1910 and 1935, show the pier tables in situ on opposite sides of the room and the center tables placed directly in front of the double fire- places. The William Randall house was torn down in 1943; the Roswell Randall house, sold in 1870, is now Cortland’s Masonic Temple.

4. Edward D. Blodgett, “William Randall House One Hundred Years Old," The Cortland Standard, June 8, 1928.

5. Blodgett, “Randall House.”

6. A similar pier table in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion was illustrated in Katherine Gross Farnham, “Georgia’s New Governor’s Mansion,” Antiques 94, no. 6 (December 1968): 856.

7. Cynthia Moyer, “Conservation Treatments for Border and Freehand Gilding and Bronze-Powder Stenciling and Freehand Bronze,” in Gilded Wood Conservation and History, ed. Deborah Bigelow, Elizabeth Cornu, Gregory J. Landrey, and Cornelius Van Horne (Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1991), p. 332.

8. Moyer has described the lithopone and pin-prick processes in discussing her method for reproducing a freehand-gilded lyre decoration: “Transfer paper (white ‘carbon’ paper) was . . . laid, dusted side down, on the finish surface, and over it . . . I traced the outline [of the motif] with a ball-tip stylus. This produced a white line on the finish surface that served as a guide [for hand painting]. . . . (Another technique would have been to puncture the outline at intervals with a fine needle-tip stylus and then dust the lithopone powder through the holes. This creates a pattern of dots that serves as a guide for painting the oil size.)"; see Moyer, “Border and Freehand Gilding,” p. 335. See also John Courtenay, “Freehand Gilding in Philadelphia Empire Furniture, 1820-1840: Possible Design Sources” (M.A. thesis, Smithsonian Furniture Conservation Training Program, 1998).