The eight-sided table has been a constantly recurring
theme in the history of furniture, although it has never
been a dominant one.
Octagonal tables have never been as popular as square, oblong or round
topped ones, but they have been made since at least the 16th century.
The first English octagonal tables were usually quite small, sturdy constructions in oak, with eight fluted or turned legs. They were apparently made with no special use in mind.
Eighteenth century octagonal tables, though, tended to be made for specific purposes.
The shape was seen as a particularly suitable one for centre tables, which were so called to distinguish them from side tables. They were made to be seen from every angle, rather than pushed against a wall, and were usually found in drawing rooms. The tops were usually about
90cm or 3ft across.
Centre tables were not used for dining they would not he able to seat more than two people, let alone cope with the enormous meals that were so much part of
18th-century life. Other tables made at this time with octagonal tops included writing tables, work tables and small
occasional tables, like card tables.
In the 18th century, as first walnut and then mahogany replaced oak as the
favourite wood for fine furniture, designs became much lighter and more graceful. Centre tables no longer stood on eight heavy legs, but
slender ones that tapered down to pad feet.
The typical 18th century octagonal table top, though, was found on a tripod or pedestal
table, one where the top was supported by a central stem set on three outward-curving feet.
Such tables were meant to be kept to the side of the room, and brought out when needed for the taking of afternoon tea, for instance so they were usually fitted with brass castors.
While the typical Georgian tripod table was a fairly plain affair, with just a little carved decoration to he seen on the stem and the feet,
Regency ones tended to be much more extravagant, in keeping with the general spirit of the times.
Brass, marble and coloured veneers were laid into the tops, while the
bases were elaborately carved, often with
classical designs, and sometimes gilded.
Octagonal work tables were a feature of both the Georgian and Regency periods. These stood on four tapering legs and were fitted with a drawer, and sometimes a bag for needlework, below.
The table-top was often elongated, so that it was more like an oblong with its corners cut off than a true octagon, which has eight sides of equal length.
The symmetry of an eight-sided table appealed to most Victorian furniture makers. The shape adapted well both to the Arts and. Crafts style and to art nouveau.
Most Victorian and Edwardian furniture, though, harked back to earlier periods, as manufacturers adapted and reproduced previous centuries' styles for the machine age.
An octagonal top adds a certain touch of style to any table, and has its practical advantages, too. An octagonal table fits better into a relatively small room than one with a rectangular top, as it has no sharp protruding corners to snag the unwary.
The octagonal tables that you are likely to find today are late Victorian or
Edwardian reproductions of older styles, mainly 18th century ones.
Some of these were individually crafted, but the majority were factory-made. The best places to look for them are in antique
shops and particularly at small auctions, where there are often good bargains to be had.
You are most likely to find medium-sized centre or occasional tables, as there was little
market in the later 19th century for small, fussy card tables and work tables.
This table sold at
Edwardian furniture-makers had a particular fondness for copying 18th-century tripod tables.
Though these are almost exact replicas, they can be recognized by their different proportions.
Edwardian tables look top-heavy compared with Georgian originals. They are not as tall, and the tops are generally larger.
It is always wise to check that the tripod base is original to the top and not a marriage. This is usually apparent at the join.
It is a good idea, too, to check where the legs meet the central column. This is often the weakest point in the table and is prone to damage.
You will often find metal strengtheners here. These were put on when the table was made, and do not mean that a piece has been repaired.
If the table has curved legs, check that the wood has not cracked along the curve, where the grain is weak.
Eight-legged tables often had a central column for extra Support. This was joined to the legs by stretchers radiating from the centre. Check all joins and stretchers very carefully for any splitting or cracking.
Coloured veneers will always fade with time if they are kept in the light. Vivid shades of red or green suggest either that the table has been wrapped up for almost a couple of centuries, or that it is a fairly modern reproduction.
Faded colours are not a problem, provided they have faded evenly, but you should always make sure that coloured or plain veneers have not split, peeled or blistered. Replacing or refixing veneers is not always possible, and is best undertaken by specialists.
Georgian octagonal work tables were
usually made with finely-inlaid tops. If the top is inset with leather, it will be because the original marquetry top was damaged. This replacement will affect the price.