Sometimes things just happen and you have to drop everything. Even in the middle of a massive project like our new extension there have been a few occasions when I have had to focus on something completely different, and that was the case with the Landkey Parish Table.
“If ever there was a piece of ‘Regional Furniture’ which should remain in Devon, surely this is it.”
“This table, at which generations of local people have sat, deliberated, talked, argued and decided matters of local importance, is a link not just between now and the past but between future members of the community and their predecessors. In this day and age, people value such links more and more.”
So what is the tale of the table?
On August 21st the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter told us that the Landkey Parish Table was due to be auctioned at Bonhams in London on September 18th. They forwarded on the following email:
Dear Chris, Todd, John and Tom,
On September 18th Bonhams are due to sell the remarkable ‘Landkey Table’, Lot 374.
Regional Furniture Society members saw this during the 2015 North Devon Conference and will surely be horrified that it is being sold. If ever there was a piece of ‘Regional Furniture’ which should remain in Devon, surely this is it. Although unique in some ways, it compares with the other known Devon parish table at Sampford Courtenay.
It would be great to see this safely housed in Barnstaple or Exeter Museum, but maybe St Nicholas Priory, Exeter, could accommodate it more easily? Any help in saving this rare survival for Devon would be greatly welcomed. Perhaps funding may be available from the V & A and elsewhere?
Chris, as RFS Chairman, would you be able to spearhead action to this end?
Kind regards to you all – in hope and with thanks,
I have to admit I had never heard of the Landkey table, but looking at the catalogue description I realised that this was a very important part of North Devon’s heritage. Talking to historians, curators and furniture specialists it soon became apparent that there was a lot of concern about the table potentially being sold to an overseas collector for a very large sum of money. With a estimate of £,5000 – £8,000 there was a very real possibility that a wealthy collector might pay up to £30,000 for it, and we didn’t want to risk bidding at auction but still failing to save it.
Within a few days we had started working towards the two targets of persuading the owners (the Trustees of the Landkey United Charities) that it ought to be removed from sale so that it could remain in North Devon, and also raising the funds to be able to buy it for the museum.
So why is it so important? The Landkey Table is a rare example of a type of table found in institutions such as colleges, monasteries and almshouses. The earliest long tables were boards placed loosely on trestles and the seats were long benches or, in higher status contexts, individual stools. By the seventeenth century joined refectory tables were adopted in large houses. The Landkey Table is an intermediate type which still has trestles but where the top is fixed and where the benches are fixed to the horizontal trestle supports. This emerged in the sixteenth century in institutional contexts. The fixed benches are a very rare feature.
Although the Trustees were not completely aware of its importance, the table was well known to furniture historians. It was included by Margaret Jourdain in her study English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance 1500-1650 (Batsford, 1924) which is well-known for the quality of its scholarship. The photos and drawings of the Landkey Table included in the book, alongside furniture from grand houses, speaks to the quality of the Table as an outstanding example of vernacular institutional furniture.
The members of the Regional Furniture Society had in fact seen the table in the Parish Rooms in Landkey as recently as 2015, when they held their annual conference in Barnstaple. The photographs below show it in situ in Landkey.
Their members were therefore able to supply me with detailed information to apply for a grant from the Museum’s Association’s Beecroft Bequest to buy it for the museum. They also assisted in demonstrating to the owners that it should stay in North Devon. Other local experts weighed in too – historian Dr Ian Mortimer, for example, wrote:
I’ve got to be honest and say I was profoundly shocked when I read that the table will soon be lost to the community. If it were a house, its rarity status would guarantee it a Grade I listing, and its preservation in its original condition would be a matter of national importance. That it is moveable means that it is a vulnerable historical asset – far more vulnerable than your Grade I fifteenth-century church, for example – and this movability, combined with its rarity value, makes it even more vulnerable to the private collector from further afield.
My shock is perhaps all the greater because it is so uncommon for communities these days to wish to dispose of such an extraordinary treasure. Indeed, when I think of my own parish (Moretonhampstead) and consider the artefacts that have been lost over the last couple of centuries, such as our church’s fifteenth-century rood screen (removed by a lord of the manor in the nineteenth century for his personal collection and subsequently partly destroyed and partly given to another church on the other side of Devon), I feel a great sense of frustration and sadness. This table, at which generations of local people have sat, deliberated, talked, argued and decided matters of local importance, is a link not just between now and the past but between future members of the community and their predecessors. In this day and age, people value such links more and more. Future generations will look at pictures of the table and be unable to believe that it survived in their community until so recently and then was disposed of at auction to a nondescript purchaser.
All this support enabled the Trustees to agree that they would, in principle, sell the table to the Museum. However, we still needed to find the money to buy it. Unfortunatelt the go-to funding stream for this knd of thing (the V&A purchase grant fund) was closed to applications, but Julia Brettell at the Fund suggested we might try the Beecroft Bequest, which is only open to smaller museums that are members of the Museums Association. That definition includes us, and the fund focuses on works of art from the 18th century or earlier, so the table was a good fit.
With much help, we submitted our urgent application for funding on August 31st.
The Trustees of the Beecroft Bequest responded amazingly quickly, and on September 10th they agreed to give us up to £10,000 as a 95% contribution towards the costs of buying the table. On September 11th the table was withdrawn from Auction.
Our next problem was getting the table back to North Devon. At 17 feet long this was not an easy task, and we had to remove it from Bonhams the day after the sale to avoid incurring storage and handling charges. To get the table out of the first floor parish rooms (being turned into a house) the window had had to be removed! A company called Exquisite Carriage came up with the answer (they had already moved it from Oxford, where it went for assessment before the auction) and on September 20th the table returned to North Devon – almost exactly a month after we first heard about it. Our builders helped us get it out of the van and into the museum.
As you can see the table is slightly flat-packed, but the top is a single piece of oak. This part may date back to the 16th century, as the date of 1655 carved into the end seems to mark a repair rather than its original construction. The initials refer to the Landkey churchwardens at the time – William Lavercombe and Thomas Gould.
Now that the table is here we can see both the truly ancient and enormous pieces of oak used to make it, with the adze marks that shaped the benches and struts, but also the later repairs and alterations that give it its unique sense of history. This table really is a wonderful part of North Devon. We are looking forward to getting it out on display in our library when the museum reopens, so that more generations of Landkey people can use it and even sit at it.
We would like to thank all those who helped with its recovery, with letters of support, money and practical help. They include individuals such as Thomas Cadbury, John Allan, Julia Brettell, Roderick and Valentine Butler, Ian Mortimer, Todd Gray, Susan Andrew, Keith Robinson, Martin Body, Deborah Griffiths, Peter Child, Peter Beacham, Dick Jones, Richard Prowse, David Luggar, Glyn Lane, Bill Parker, Michael Gee, Terry Green, Stephen Pitcher, Lady Arran, Nick Humphrey, Nick Wells and David Houlston. Organisations which helped achieve this happy outcome include the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Regional Furniture Society, Devonshire Association, Devon Archaeological Society, Friends of Devon Archives, Landkey Parish Council, North Devon Council and the Trustees of the Landkey United Charities. And especially the Trustees of the Beecroft Bequest.