Half-moon table at Sidmouth Musuem reveals fascinating history

The table top before the restoration

The table top before the restoration - Credit: Archant

You may think that museums are full of everyone else’s unwanted junk, write Rab and Christine Barnard. But every object can tell a story if you know where to look. Take, for example, this small half-moon table that has been in Sidmouth Museum for 40 years.

Music on the table

Music on the table - Credit: Archant

On the face of it, it is not unattractive, but would you give it a second glance in this condition? We thought not. So here at the museum we decided to try to do something to make you change your mind.

Last year, we launched a bid for grant-funding to get the table cleaned and to bring it back to life. We submitted a request to the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme and, much to our amazement, we were successful.

Earlier this year, it went off to the conservator’s studio for several months to be cleaned and conserved.

During this time, we set about researching the background history and discovering what the table itself could tell us from its paintwork, style and decoration.

The table top after the restoration

The table top after the restoration - Credit: Archant

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Have you ever wondered how it would be if only your furniture could talk? Just what stories might be revealed by that rather battered chair in the corner or the sideboard that has seen better days? Well, this was just the same and we have managed to unlock a fascinating history.

Starting off with just a few snippets to guide us, we are able to tie the table into two of Sidmouth’s important houses, Cotmaton Hall and the Royal Glen. The families who owned it are no less interesting.

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The table’s provenance implies that, at different times, it was in the possession of the Baynes and Carslake families; both prominent in Sidmouth society.

The Carslakes, with their connection to the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Baynes family, who have links to the American Wars, but who also bring into the equation wealth, slavery and piracy.

Painted tables are rare survivors and are of historical importance, providing a snapshot of our social history. They became popular in the late 1700s made by, among others, the Adams brothers, who commissioned famous artists of the day to decorate panels and table tops.

Painted furniture is also mentioned in the novels by Jane Austen, where it is noted as one of the accomplishments of ladies of quality.

The decoration on our table comprises a reproduction of an original painting by the Reverend Matthew William Peters RA, dating to 1787 or before, and a flower and foliage border; both of which have been attached using a type of découpage or ‘Japanning’.

The table’s turned legs point towards a build date of circa 1820. The piece also offers some mysteries. The first is the presence of a tiny, one-centimetre-diameter, embossed stamp of a rose on a short stem. What does it signify?

The second is a piece of music, portrayed in the reproduction painting. Tantalisingly, some of the notes and lyrics can just be discerned, brought out by the cleaning, but the title of the song is a mystery – we are hoping someone might be able to identify it for us, if it’s real.

Oh! And the floral border might, just might, harbour a hidden message.

The table is now back on display with a new digital screen show explaining the conservation process and the discovered history.

There will be special children’s activity day tomorrow (Saturday) from 10.30am to 12.30pm incorporating the chance to try some of the techniques used in making the table top. We hope to see you there.

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