The very first tables were purely practical affairs: flat surfaces with which to keep objects off the ground or simple trestles put up for meal times and afterwards dismantled. Tables with attached legs, joined by heavy stretchers fixed close to the floor, appeared in the 15th Century, followed by leaved draw top tables, usually made of elm or oak, which meant the table could be doubled in size.
From the middle of the 16th Century onward tables began to reflect the evolving design tendencies. As domestic tastes grew more sophisticated furniture followed suit and became more decorative, although the large dining table remained functional and straightforward and showed few stylistic changes. The French and Italian fashions of the 17th and 18th Centuries saw an abundance of elegant occasional console or side tables, often inlaid with marquetry or marble and – influenced by the increasing influences of the East – lacquered and highly polished.
These small tables were light, often moveable and seen at their best unadorned or with a pair of candlesticks. Half-moon shaped console tables attached to the wall with S brackets and with two legs at the front were narrow, suitable for a hall or passageway, and may have held a silver salver for visiting cards. A whole range of particular functions was now being addressed: card playing, needlework, tea drinking and letter writing. And in the present day we need them just as much: we might put a lamp on them, photographs, books or a glass of wine; play games on them, or place a bowl for our keys. These little gems are not just appealing, but constantly useful.
The earliest piece here is a Dutch marquetry side table – lately the dressing table of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe – made from walnut and kingwood with a gorgeous inlaid design of a fruit basket and flowers. The top dates from the late 17th Century and the beautifully proportioned whole is the very antithesis of heavy brown furniture. It has a long slim drawer, tapering legs and glows like burnished gold.
The George III card table, with its intricate blind fretwork frieze, folds out to double in size and reveal a baize top, a feat of Georgian design: it’s the ultimate spare table for games and jigsaws and stands on solid square legs. Another practical piece from the Georgian era, perhaps for the entrance hall, is a satinwood table with a mirror and shelf above, the top painted to simulate porphyry.
A little jewel of an occasional table from the ebullient Regency period is a lovely rosewood piece with a painted trompe l’oeil top simulating 24 squares of different marbles; it has a slim drawer and graceful out-swept legs.
The William IV pedestal side table is made from laburnum, which was more commonly used for archery bows and musical instruments. It has rounded corners and an astonishing design of radiating veneers. Imagine a bowl of roses on it, one perfect fallen petal reflected in the glossy top.
From the mid 19th Century a thing of real beauty: a honey-coloured French marquetry writing table where the design of flowers and leaves in tulipwood and kingwood is so delicate that they appear almost to float.
Or there is a French mid-20th Century console table made from Indian rosewood and faux vellum, the top a half-moon shape on a solid pedestal base. And who could fail to be beguiled by the circular Art Deco ‘Surprise’ drinks table, where the centre panel, when pressed, pops up to reveal a Bakelite tray containing bottles and glasses?
Then there is the Augustus Brandt bespoke option: a slim, narrow side table made from Macassar wood, ebony and boxwood with a glass inset top would fit beautifully against any wall that can be made to order in various sizes in six to eight weeks.
You don’t think you need a side table until you have one; then you will wonder how you managed without it.
Lucy Deedes has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Saga magazine, Country & Townhouse magazine, had regular columns in the Scottish Field and Country Illustrated magazine.
For inspiration, pay a visit to our extensive showrooms in Petworth, home to room sets featuring bespoke, antique and contemporary pieces. Our adjacent lifestyle store offers a choice of homewares, accessories and gifts for everyone from children to the family pet.