In the antique business some items are always popular. Tea and games tables are big winners when it comes to being always in demand and, importantly, to being pieces that sell quickly. These tables were never designed to be used exclusively for just tea drinking or playing games; they had a duel purpose, which makes them as practical today as they were a couple of hundred years ago. Generally, they would spend their lives sitting against a wall, looking pretty and displaying pictures, ornaments, and maybe a lamp. On occasion, however, these little tables would burst into life and cleverly convert into entertainment tables for happy tea parties or boisterous games evenings.
With the massive explosion of tea drinking in the seventeenth century, tea tables came into vogue along with teashops, tea-drinking establishments, tea caddies, and tea-poys, or tea caddies on table legs. Anyone with a love and interest in tea drinking, or just social climbing, invited special guests to their homes for some serious tea-tasting, and also to show off their especially made tea tables.
These tea parties moved from home to home each week, and there would have been some heavy competition amongst groups of friends to see who could impress the most with the finest tables, the best tea from the most exotic sources, great skills in mixing the leaves, and the most expensive tea cups. All eyes would be on the hosts as the boiling hot tea was poured into the porcelain cups.
Adding milk to the cup before the hot tea was a sure sign that the hosts had been skimping on their chinaware. Fine china, it was said, could take scalding hot tea without cracking or fracturing. With poor-quality china, the worry was always that the thing would explode and collapse in a heap as soon as the tea hit the cup. Therefore, people who were concerned that their tea service wasn’t quite up to scratch would always err on the side of caution and add the milk first to cool the tea before it did any serious damage to their chinaware. People’s social standing would have therefore undoubtedly taken a big knock if the milk went in first.
Typical tea tables are generally fold-over type affairs, their tops consisting of two leaves, one of which is able to flip over and rest on one or both of the back legs, which fold out from the back cleverly on wooden hinges. The moment this happens the size of the table doubles and it’ll seat four people comfortably.
Tea tables have plain wood tops, with no baize or leather lining, but the colour of the wood on the inside may be much darker than that of the tabletop. It shows that the top has faded naturally over the years, and because the inside is rarely exposed to the elements, it has kept its original colour – there’s nothing wrong in that, it just makes a table more interesting.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century tea tables can be bought for as little as a few hundred pounds, but around £1500 will get you something deliriously wonderful and a great investment. Games tables are worth about the same.
Games tables are frequently identical to tea tables – apart from having a baize lining on the inside or, in some cases, dished-out areas for card players to store money or chips, and also, upon occasion, drawers – some of them hidden – for games and cash. Some are distinctive by actually having games boards inset into their tops. Still, all of them make lovely occasional tables and are great talking pieces.
There was an explosion in the manufacture of games tables during the eighteenth century, as the country’s absolute addiction to gambling spread like wild fire. This affected all levels in society, and many notable figures of the day tried to ban gambling altogether because of the devastating effect it was having on the state of the nation.
While the housemaids, footmen, and servants were losing their wages in gambling sessions below stairs, the rich were losing their homes, estates, businesses, and inheritances upstairs. The painter Thomas Rowlandson lost his £7,000 inheritance (a fortune in 1789) in a 36-hour game of cards. Georgiana Spencer (ancestor of the late Princess Diana) was in debt the whole of her life due to her gambling addiction.
It wasn’t all bad, though. As well as lovely tables, another great thing to come out of our eighteenth century’s gambling problems was something we should all be thankful for. The Earl of Sandwich was a voracious gambler who made and lost fortunes sitting at his games table. He loved this table – and his gambling companions – so much that he refused to leave his seat for any reason, so when lunch or dinner was served – rarely would he be up for breakfast – he would demand that his meal be served him at the table. To save time and effort of having to use cutlery and dishes, he instructed the cooks simply to stuff the food between two slices of bread, giving him much more freedom to continue with the game. He was so pleased with this new invention in quick and simple eating that he named it after himself, the Sandwich. One horrified visitor at the time described the Earl’s new eating invention as, ‘an abomination against science, God, and table manners’, and predicted that the sandwich would never catch on!