The form of the Pembroke table with its smaller proportions and distinctive drop-leaves likely originates with the 9th Earl of Pembroke, Henry Herbert (1693-1751).
Herbert studied at Oxford before going on the grand tour in 1712, where he spent time in Naples, Venice, and Rome, where he met William Kent. When he returned to England be was appointed lord of the bedchamber to George II. He was also made captain and colonel of the 1st Troop of the Horse Guards in 1721.
Herbert’s time in Italy inspired his antiquarian spirit, and in his lifetime he designed seven buildings, including his own home, Pembroke House, Whitehall. Contemporary writer and social figure Horace Walpole complimented Herbert’s aesthetic staying, ‘no man had a purer taste in building.’
Although there is no definitive record, it is commonly believed that Herbert first designed the Pembroke table, a form that is meant for occasional use with two drawers and flaps on either side that can be raised by brackets on hingers (or elbows) to increase the size. The table shown above is one of our recent acquisitions and is an excellent example of this form.
There is another possible origin for the name of the table that stretches back further in the family. It is sometimes said that the table was named for Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), who allegedly ordered a table of this design. Mary Herbert was one of the first English women to achieve fame as a poet: at Wilton she established the Wilton Circle, which became a ‘paradise for poets,’ including Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies, and Samuel Daniel. She also entertained Queen Elizabeth I with her husband, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke at Bayndard’s Castle in the City of London.
Either way, the versatility of the table’s form made it a highly popular item in the 18th century home as it could be used for writing, dining, serving tea, or at bedsides. When not in use, the tables could be discreetly tucked away.
Finely conceived in the fashionable neoclassical taste, this diminutive table can be attributed on stylistic grounds to the workshop of William Ince and John Mayhew. The extensive use of exotic, fiddleback-figured harewood, diagonal crossbanding with tulipwood, faux-fluting inlaid leg capitals and contrasting edge-stringing, as well as the finest quality of once brightly coloured inlays and the use of expensive mahogany as a secondary timber, are all features, indicative of their workshop.
Pembroke tables remain popular today for their versatility and useful design. We are delighted to have this example in our collection.