Important 18th & 19th Century Antique Furniture


A Pair of Georgian Dolphin 'Slab' Tables in the Manner of James Richards, after the Designs by William Kent


Predominantly inspired by the model of Rome and later the magnificent court of Louis XIV at Versailles, the baroque style in Britain was felt across all of the decorative arts, including furniture from the 1680s to the 1730s. Foremost it was a style that became synonymous with fantasy and drama and was known for its immense scale and proportions. Design motifs include, naturalized plant forms, shells, cartouches.

William Kent was the key promoter of this style in Britain. Despite Kent's limited knowledge of the Baroque, he was well informed by the engravings of Le Pautre and Daniel Marot, who were amongst the first designers to transform a room into a total work of art under Louis XIV. While Kent saw the importance of conceiving furniture as part of the whole design for a room, he was very much influenced by the tastes of leading British Whig magnates, such as Lord Burlington, who promoted the classical ideals of Andrea Palladio and his followers, notably Inigo Jones.

George II Dolphin 'Slab' Tables Detail 4

A Pair of Georgian Dolphin 'Slab' Tables in the Manner of James Richards, after the Designs by William Kent

Height: 32" 83cm
Width: 41" 104cm
Depth: 21" 55cm

Each George II table with its original marble top above a moulded frieze carved with a stylized leaf and dart repeat. The tops supported on pairs of addorsed dolphins flanking large scallop shells. The inverted breakfront plinths are carved with a variation of the leaf and dart repeat on the frieze.


These tables combine two of the most distinctive emblems of the 'Roman' or neo-Palladian style promoted by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1695-1753) and popularised by his protégé William Kent (1685-1748). The scallop shell, representing Venus, is supported by addorsed dolphins, symbolic of Neptune and also of Venus, both motifs recalling the goddess's birth from the sea. The design of the paired dolphins can be traced back to Roman antiquity, when it was employed as a decorative moulding on the cornice of the Temple of Neptune at Rome. Fragments of the temple were recorded by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, in the fourth volume of I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, published in Venice in 1570 (1). The theme of Venus and her dolphins was a popular one among Roman baroque artists of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and it was during his long stay in Rome from 1709 to 1719 that William Kent developed his characteristic decorative style. In particular, Kent's debt to Giovanni Giardini, whose Disegni Diversi were published in Rome in 1714, is clear (2).

The scallop shell and paired dolphins, both separately and together, recur frequently in Kent's documented oeuvre. His first commission for George I was the decoration of the new apartments at Kensington Palace (1724), where in the King's Gallery the ceiling features paired dolphins and putti at each corner of the design. A pair of large slab table frames, first recorded in Queen Caroline's Drawing Room at Kensington, but now at Windsor Castle and much altered, are tentatively attributed to Kent. Their scrolled truss supports flank a pair of writhing dolphins centring on a female mask. Kent's designs for the tailpieces of Alexander Pope's translation of the Odyssey, published 1725-6, includes one showing paired dolphins ridden by Venus's swans, supporting a scallop shell and winged putto (3). An illustration for John Gay's Fables (1726) shows a fountain whose base is carved as three dolphins entwined, and at Burlington's Chiswick Villa (1728) the frames of the overdoor paintings in the Blue Velvet Room feature paired putti with dolphins' tails supporting a scallop shell.

Kent reserved his most ambitious essay on this theme for the Royal State barge of Frederick, Prince of Wales, designed in 1732. The 67 foot vessel is carved with shells, dolphins and sea-lions along its length. At the stern the Prince's plumed crest is displayed against a giant scallop shell supported by dolphins enclosing the Garter Star (4 & 5). The carver of this remarkable vessel was James Richards, whose work with Kent is discussed below.


William Kent's role in introducing and popularizing the motif of paired dolphins with scallop shells seems indisputable, and no comparable designs survive by any other contemporary English artist. Moreover, the two artisans associated with the production of carved dolphin designs, James Richards and Benjamin Goodison, both had direct links with Kent and Burlington, which again points to Kent as the common source. Although, on the evidence currently available, the maker of these tables cannot be firmly identified, the present tables bear clear similarities with Kent's designs, James Richards's documented work and critically the quality of Richards's work.


1. The Temple of Neptune, Andrea Palladio, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (Venice) 1570, Book IV, plate 94.

2 . Design for a slab table, Giovanni Giardini, Disegni Diversi (Rome), 1714.

3 . Design for a tailpiece, by William Kent, from Pope's Odyssey (1725-6), Vol. IV, Book VII.

4 . Design for the State barge, by William Kent (1732).

5 . The State barge of Frederick, Prince of Wales, designed by William Kent and carved by James Richards (1732).

6 . Dolphin tables: a) Boughton House, attributed to Benjamin Goodison, one of a pair; b) Mallet, from Studley Royal, Yorkshire; c) unprovenanced table, Ramsden collection; d) Rushbrooke Hall (?), one of a pair; e) unprovenance table, Christie's, 1995; f) table illustrated by R. W. Symonds, 1930.

7. Overmantel from Raynham Hall, Norfolk, by James Richards, probably designed by William Kent (1729-30).

8. Overdoor from Raynham Hall, Norfolk, by James Richards, probably designed by William Kent.

English, Circa 1730-1735


Dolphin tables of this type are usually attributed to Benjamin Goodison (c. 1700-1767), who succeeded James Moore as Cabinet-maker to the Crown in 1726-7. The attribution rests on a pair of dolphin tables at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, which are thought to have been made by Goodison for the 2nd Duke of Montagu in the 1730s (6a).

Goodison was certainly able to supply tables of this kind, for in 1741 he billed the 4th Earl of Cardigan for 'a carved and gilt dolphin table frame to match another'. However, the handful of 'dolphin' tables which survive are sufficiently different in design and execution to suggest the production of more than one workshop. The Boughton pair (6a) are closely matched by a table at one time with Mallet of Bond Street, which came from Studley Royal, Yorkshire (6b) and all three may indeed be by Goodison.

A second group and very different group comprises a table formerly in the Ramsden Collection (6c) and a pair of tables reputedly from Rushbrooke Hall, Suffolk (6d). A third version appeared for sale at Christie's, London, in 1995 (6e).

The present tables with one other, illustrated by R.W. Symonds in Materpieces of English Furniture (6f), constitute a fourth and distinct model which is unlikely to have come from the same workshop as any of the other examples. 9

The only other contemporary maker whose documented work includes carved dolphins was James Richards (fl. 1719-67), who succeeded Grinling Gibbons as 'Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood' to the Crown in 1721.10

Aside from his work for the crown, Richards was employed by a number of Palladian architects and designers. His first recorded commission was for the architect Colen Campbell (1676-1729), with whom he worked on Burlington's town house in Piccadilly from 1719. Throughout the 1720s he worked closely with William Kent, not only at Kensington Palace, but also on Lord Pelham's house at 17 Arlington Street, London, and at Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire, the home of Sir John Chester.

Their most prestigious private commission was at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, built for Sir Robert Walpole between c. 1720 and c. 1735.11 The magnificent interior woodwork at Houghton, much of it carved in solid mahogany, was Richards's responsibility. Some of the static furniture in the house, such as the massive slab tables designed by William Kent, is thought also to be by Richards. The collaboration between Kent and Richards continued at nearby Raynham Hall, which was refashioned for Walpole's brother-in-law Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, at about the same time.12

Richards's bills for his work at Raynham are dated 1729-30, and reveal that he was responsible for all the interior woodwork. Of particular interest are the overdoors and fireplace overmantel in the State Bedroom, which feature addorsed dolphins supporting a double scallop shell (7). Richards's carving for the Royal barge of 1732 includes dolphins and shells in extravagant profusion, every detail of which was executed from William Kent's designs.

Although the present tables are undocumented, there are intriguing similarities with Richards's recorded work. One of most telling features is the treatment of the scallop shell. The plain-ribbed style of the Boughton shells is very different from the 'ruched' or horizontally rippled effect achieved by Richards at Raynham (8). Kent's design for the Prince of Wales' arms on the Royal barge shows this same detail (5), which also occurs on other furniture attributed to the Kent/Richards partnership.13

The similarity in the present case is not exact, because on the tables the ruching is confined to the centre portion of the shell, but it does set these apart from all other known examples. The treatment is somewhat analagous to a device employed by Kent at Houghton, where the painted ceiling of the Saloon incorporates white-painted shells whose centre parts are gilded to create a layered or 'two-tone' effect.

1. Margaret Jourdain, The Work of William Kent, London (1948); Rudolf Wittlower, Palladio and English Palladianism, London (1974); Michael Wilson, William Kent, London (1984); John Harris, The Palladian Revival, New Haven and London (1994).

2. David Watkins, The Royal Interiors of Regency England, London (1984), p. 67; Hugh Roberts, For the King's Pleasure, London 2001, pp. 246 & 258, fig. 321.

3. Geoffrey Beard, 'William Kent and the Royal Barge', The Burlington Magazine, CXII, No. 809 (August 1970), pp. 508-20.

4. Tessa Murdoch, ed., Boughton House, London (1992), p. 135, fig. 136.

5. Ralph Edwards and Margaret Jourdain, Georgian Cabinet Makers, London (1955), p. 45; Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert, The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, Leeds (1986), p. 354.

6. Lanto Synge, Great English Furniture (London 1991), p. 90.

7. Ralph Edwards, Dictionary of English Furniture (1954), III, p. 287, fig.42; Sotheby's, New York, 29 September 1989, lot 154; Christies, New York, 20 January 1995, lot 452.

8. Christies, London, 2 February 1995, lot 361.

9. R. W. Symonds, 'English Eagle and Dolphin Tables', Antiques (October 1930), pp. 304- 307, fig. 6 & Masterpieces of English Furniture & Clocks. pp. 63, fig 40

10. For more on Richards see Beard and Gilbert, op. cit., p. 742.

11. Andrew Moore, ed., Houghton Hall, London (1996).

12. Geoffrey Beard, 'Kentian Furniture by James Richard and others', Apollo, CLVI, NO. 491 (January 2003), pp. 37-41.

13. For instance, on the pier tables and carved mahogany chairs in the Saloon at Houghton Moore, op. cit., pp. 121-3, figs. 40 & 43.