Written and Compiled by Gib Vincent
Mahogany, mahogany veneer with white pine and poplar
45” x 79” x 27”
Attributed to John Meads
Purchased May 22, 1813
Albany, New York
The sideboard at Hyde Hall is the most magnificent piece of furniture that George Clarke purchased. It is large, well-built, nicely proportioned, and includes finely executed carving and striking, figured mahogany. When George Clarke moved in 1813 from a boarding house to a rented house at 140 State Street, Albany, he turned to John Meads, the leading cabinetmaker in Albany, when furnishing his new abode. An itemized bill from Meads to Clarke lists a series of purchases made between March 12, 1813, and January 5, 1814, for a total of £542.15.6 (New York pounds) or $1356.94, a considerable sum at the time. A sideboard is listed on Meads’ bill for May 22, 1813, at the cost of £60 (New York pounds) or approximately $150. With Clarke’s move from Albany in 1819 to Hyde Hall, his inventory of “Goods, Furniture and Books’ listed “a Side Board & Blankets” in shipment number 28. The sideboard in Meads’ bill and Clarke’s inventory has always been identified as the one still at Hyde Hall. It has remained at Hyde Hall for over 200 years.
The origin of the term sideboard lies in the medieval hall, which served as a communal room with multiple uses for the owner, his family, guests, and staff. For mealtimes, one or more tables, composed of trestles for legs with a board on top, were set up as needed. Thus board and table became interchangeable, and the meaning survives today in the term “room and board” for a bedroom and food.
By the late Middle Ages, a desire for more privacy resulted in tables for dining being moved to smaller, more private spaces. This tradition continued into the eighteenth century where tables would often be moved into a parlor or a bedroom—or whatever room that was deemed convenient. The concept of a dining room eventually gained acceptance in the mid-eighteenth century as a designated room set aside for eating and it remained useful to have side tables to hold platters of food and various liquors and drinks.
Sideboards rose to popularity during the neoclassical period in the late 18th century. These side tables began to incorporate a drawer and soon transformed into small serving pantries. Expressing the inventiveness of the period, sideboards took a variety of forms. The addition of multiple drawers and cupboards provided convenient space for storing such items as tablecloths and napkins, plates and glasses, silver flatware, and liquor bottles. A plate warmer or a cistern for drinking water or washing glasses could utilize one of the cupboards or a chamber pot could be kept for the gentlemen to use after the ladies had retired to the drawing room and the men remained to drink and talk.
In 1788 The Cabinet-makers’ London Book of Prices, a price guide for paying workers a standard wage at cabinet shops, listed seventeen variations of “Sideboards” or “Sideboard Tables” then in production in London, the style center for the Anglo-American world. As Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, published in 1788, explains: “THE great utility of this piece of furniture has procured it a very general reception; and the conveniences it affords renders a dining room incomplete without a sideboard.” The Guide even included a plan for a dining room showing the placement of a sideboard at one end of the room to demonstrate “the proper distribution of furniture.”
By 1811 the number of common sideboard designs in the London Book of Prices had been reduced to seven but included the pedestal sideboard, so-named because of the pedestal-like cupboard ends that gave extra storage. An opening in the center remained as a convenient place to store either a wine cooler or a cellarette. The origin of the pedestal sideboard lay in England with the architect and archeologist James Stuart, who co-authored The Antiquities of Athens with Nicholas Revett in 1762. Stuart is credited with the first combination of a side table and wine cooler flanked by urns on pedestals in the neoclassical style for the Earl of Scarborough at Kedleston Park in 1760. It was the English architect Robert Adam who made the design available to the public. In the 1760s and 1770s, Adam designed a series of dining rooms for such country houses as Osterley Park and Syon House with one or more large side tables flanked by freestanding pedestals topped with urns. The urns were used as knife boxes or cisterns for water, while the pedestals held plate warmers or chamber pots. When he published the first volume of his designs in The Works in Architecture in 1778, he reached a broad, even international audience. Adam included an image of the Kenwood House sideboard table, wine cooler, and freestanding pedestals and urns that became the source for numerous sideboards. The fashion was quickly taken up and by 1788 the London Book of Prices includes the cost of labor for several different pedestal sideboard designs.
Adam’s dining rooms were large rooms placed in large houses with numerous staff. For smaller houses like Hyde Hall, a comparable form inspired by Adam’s appeared as a combination of a sideboard table and pedestals. This was a piece of furniture that included a top for display and drawers and cupboards for storage or other uses. Thomas Shearer is credited with the sideboard designs that first appeared in George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide as well as The Cabinet-makers’ London book of prices and designs of cabinet work in 1788. More sideboard designs appeared in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book in 1793 including a sideboard with attached pedestals and urns.
The pedestal sideboard was a popular form in New York during the first decade of the 19th century, if you could afford it, and this is the form that George Clarke chose for his sideboard in 1813. The design relates to the British Regency period, but the closest inspiration for the Hyde Hall sideboard comes from the Edinburgh Book of Prices printed in 1811. An illustration shows many features such as a flattened elliptical center drawer, the canted corners of the pedestals, animal paw feet that were incorporated into the Hyde Hall sideboard.
There were a number of immigrant Scottish cabinetmakers in New York City at the time—the most recognized being Duncan Phyfe. It is likely that a copy of the price book was available to Meads, who had trained in the City between 1792 and 1801 before moving to Albany. In fact, the quality of the design, construction, and carving of the sideboard is so high and its similarity to several other sideboards attributed to New York City that it has been suggested that the Hyde Hall sideboard is the work of a New York City cabinetmaker and retailed by Meads to Clarke, although there is no proof of this.
Hyde Hall’s pedestal sideboard has highly-figured mahogany as a primary wood. The pedestals are framed by attached columns with Corinthian capitals located on canted corners and supported by finely carved hairy paw feet. Brass side rails incorporating a diamond motif are placed on the sides of the top, a design found on several other nearly identical New York sideboards. The solid mahogany backboard or splash rail is divided into three parts by mahogany plinths that support stylized carved pineapples, a traditional symbol of friendship and hospitality in the temperate climes of Europe and North America. The backboard is capped by a carved molding of acorns and oak leaves, an unusual if not unique detail, but an important reference to family history.
George Clarke’s grandmother, Anne Hyde, was a cousin of a branch of the Hydes who were committed Royalists during the English Civil War. Three members had provided Charles II with crucial aid, despite the penalty being “death without mercy,” during his perilous attempt to reach the safety of France after losing the Battle of Worcester in 1651. One day during his escape Charles successfully hid from the Parliamentary forces in an oak tree. On his restoration to the throne in 1660, he rewarded those who had helped him and commemorated the oak tree event by establishing Oak Apple or Royal Oak Day on May 29, his birthday, a holiday that continues to be celebrated in England today. Family tradition holds that the acorn and oak leaf carving on the sideboard symbolizes the important role that the Hyde family played in saving the life of Charles II.
Evidence on the inside of the drawer fronts shows that when Clarke purchased the sideboard in 1813, the handles were brass lion heads. Originally, there were two holes to mount the earlier lion-head pulls similar to another Meads’ piece in the Family Dining Room. These were replaced by the current ring and rosette brasses when Clarke decided to update his sideboard to match the style of the 24 klismos dining chairs acquired from Meads for his new dining room in the Great House in 1830.
It is because of the quality of this sideboard that George Clarke decided against replacing it with something more updated. We are fortunate it has survived in such pristine condition.