What you see: The Thunder Table, created by Wharton Esherick in 1929 for the Hedgerow Theatre Company in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Freeman’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.
The expert: Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s.
Who was Wharton Esherick? He was an artist, a sculptor in wood, and a furniture maker who was active in Paoli, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s up to his death in 1970. He thought he would make it as a painter. He carved up wood for frames, and people who saw his artwork responded to the frames more than they did the pictures. [After that] he started to experiment more with furniture and sculpture. He experienced the Arts and Crafts community of Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, or the legacy of it–it was on its last legs at that point. Seeing Rose Valley furniture inspired him to get increasingly creative in his designs. If you see a piece by Esherick, you know it’s by him. He is from that first generation of artists who looked at a utilitarian object made of wood and thought, “Can I make this into a work of art on its own? Can I make it into a sculptural piece?”
So, though Esherick took formal art training, he taught himself to make furniture? He did. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, and he didn’t have people around him telling him, “You can’t do that, you can’t make a chair like that.” Fortuitously, he had a neighbor, John Schmidt, who had trained in Germany in the guild system and knew how to construct chairs and cabinets. Esherick leaned on John [for technical help].
How prolific was Wharton Esherick? When you look at his whole body of work–if you include all the pieces of artwork, counting every little doodle, it’s probably somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 pieces. Of that, 300 to 400 could count as furniture.
He didn’t think of his furniture as art? He very famously considered himself an artist. He didn’t consider himself a woodworker or a craftsman. Wood or metal or paintings, they were all the same thing to him.
How did his furniture work find favor? The 1920s, 30s, and 40s were a Colonial moment [in American furniture]. People who could afford a piece by Esherick, which was not inexpensive, were buying Chippendale chairs. Fortunately for Esherick, influential people encountered his works. Hedgerow Theatre operated as a sort of gallery for him.
Where was Wharton Esherick in his career in 1929, when he made the Thunder Table? He was really at a transitional moment. He dipped his toes in the pond of furniture, so to speak, and he made some of his earliest designs. He was very involved with Hedgerow Theatre, making set designs for them, costume designs, sitting in the balcony and sketching performers. From these, he gained inspiration to create furniture. He made some of his really great pieces in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a very fruitful period for him, but certainly not his most productive period. He was making what are effectively one-offs, wholly original works that are not replicated designs with serialized production.
How did his relationship with the Hedgerow Theatre start, and how long did it last? It lasted his entire life. Esherick’s wife, Letty, was friends with Dr. Ruth Deeter, who was the sister of Jasper Deeter, a theatrical type from New York City who was coming to Rose Valley to start a repertory theater. Wharton, being Wharton, wanted to check it out. He met Jasper, and found each other very kindred spirits. Esherick helped repair the theater in some cases. If the theater needed a table, he’d carve a table. If it needed chairs, he’d make some chairs. He created [the furniture] with love and artistic integrity. You can’t separate Hedgerow Theatre from Esherick in this early period. It infiltrated everything he was doing.
Was Esherick was involved with Hedgerow Theatre until he died? He created his last piece for the theater in the 1930s, but he was involved with it for many more years. He was still kind of on hand if something needed to be fixed. There wasn’t much need for additional pieces. What he made in the 1920s and 1930s stood up to the test of time.
How did this piece get the name “The Thunder Table”? In 1929, the theater staged a production of Thunder on the Left. I don’t know a lot about the production, but the carving that exists on the table was taken directly from a pose that the two lead actors had in the production. Esherick saw the actors in the dramatic pose, and that inspired the carving he put on the tabletop.
How did the people at the Hedgerow Theatre use the Thunder Table? It was meant to serve at least two functions. It was in use [at the residence] where the actors lived and worked. They sat around the table for meals and for meetings. At some point, the table moved to the theater’s green room, a reception area. That’s where it spent the majority of the past several decades.
The Thunder Table is big–almost ten feet long. How often did Esherick work on that scale? It’s not atypical to see a table this large, but there aren’t many. It’s among his masterworks. There’s nothing quite like this table for Hedgerow Theatre.
What do we know about how Esherick made the Thunder Table? He probably had help with this table, from Schmidt. The table is primarily made from oak with the exception of a handful of walnut butterflies. What’s interesting is the table was deliberately warped to have ends that kind of drop off. Looking at it, you’d think it happened over time, but looking at old photos, it’s clear that’s how Esherick created it. It’s stabilized by a central stretcher [visible under the table, and spanning its length]. The whole stretcher can be removed so the table can be moved.
So “stretcher” is the name for that long piece under the table? Yes. What’s cool about the central stretcher is it’s signed and dated. On one side, it says, “WE, Hedgerow,” and the other side has 1929 in Roman numerals. It’s typical for Esherick to sign and date his work.
But I imagine the signature and date on the Thunder Table stretcher is fancier than most? It’s certainly indicative of what he did earlier [in his career]. Because of his connection to Hedgerow Theatre, you expect him to speak to that partnership in the signature, and he did.
Why are the Thunder Table’s legs diagonal? The legs being slanted gives the table a bit more support than if the legs came straight down.
I take it the Thunder Table is heavy? It has a pretty decent weight, mostly due to the fact that it’s made from oak, a very heavy wood.
How many people do you need to move it? Two strong guys can move it. Otherwise, it’s a four-man job.
What is the Thunder Table like in person? It’s imposing. It’s a big table. You kind of stand in reverence of it. There’s a certain air of importance about this table that you sense immediately because of its imposing proportions and the attention paid to every detail. People who are not familiar with Wharton Esherick or Hedgerow Theatre look at it and say, “Wow.”
Have you sat at the Thunder Table? I have. It’s interesting, when you sit at the table, you’re not very far from the person at the other side. You can reach out and touch them. It lends a sense of intimacy to the table and [shows] how Esherick envisioned people living and acting together in close quarters.
What’s your favorite detail of the Thunder Table? It’s hard to pick one, but the way the legs are constructed is very visually interesting. It’s a very Esherick type of shape, the trapezoidal element of the legs. And the signature, combining him and Hedgerow Theatre in the table itself, is a very special element not seen on other furniture. It’s clear there was an artistic kinship here.
Do we know why he carved the image of the two figures into the surface of the Thunder Table? Carvings only exist in early Wharton Esherick pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a true crossover from sculpting and drawing to his furniture. He thought of them as a way to add dramatic qualities to his furniture. Pieces by Esherick that have carvings on them are very, very scarce. The carving brands this work as a piece made for Hedgerow Theatre, and it speaks to Esherick’s journey as an artist influenced by Deeter and the actors at Hedgerow.
Is the Thunder Table unique among Wharton Esherick’s artistic furnishings? Very unique. It’s certainly among what I would consider his masterpieces. The table itself is a spectacular piece of artistry on its own. Considering it in relation to the theater and the countless number of individuals who lived and worked with it… there are pictures of actors folding clothes on it, and wiping it down after drinking their morning coffee. It was very much a part of Hedgerow Theatre. It’s one of the special Wharton Esherick pieces that [embodies] not just the story of Wharton Esherick, but the story of a community and its significance to his life and work.
How did Hedgerow Theatre influence Wharton Esherick? It gave him license. He had the support of a nearby community steeped in artistic traditions, and a group of people who understood what he was after. The influence Hedgerow Theatre had on Wharton Esherick can’t be overstated. It’s not clear what Esherick’s work and his life would look like without being exposed to Hedgerow Theatre for so many years.
Did Wharton Esherick make matching chairs for the Thunder Table? There were chairs made for use with the table, but not made en suite with either of the big tables. He makes the Thunder Table in 1929, the Sawbuck Table in 1934, and the chairs in 1938. He made the set of 36 chairs out of hammer and axe handles, which functioned as legs and stretchers. They were so well-regarded that people would ask Esherick for a hammer handle chair, and he had run out of handles, so he sculpted handles to resemble them out of oak and ash. The later iterations of the design are called his ash chairs.
Do any of the hammer handle chairs that Esherick made for Hedgerow Theatre survive? Over the decades, as actors would leave the theater or retire, it was not uncommon for a chair to be taken or given to them because they were so emblematic of the community. Some are in museum collections, and some are in private collections. Eight stayed with Hedgerow Theatre through the years.
How many Wharton Esherick pieces from Hedgerow Theatre will be in the upcoming Design sale? The chairs, a staircase, three tables… 12, total.
The Thunder Table carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. How did you arrive at that number? What comparables did you consider? There aren’t a lot of comparables. Esherick was not as prolific as George Nakashima or some of the others. He doesn’t come to market as frequently. But when I learned of Wharton Esherick, it never occurred to me that pieces from the Hedgerow Theatre might be available on the market [someday]. They seemed so seminal to Esherick’s body of work–that’s why the collection is so important. There are no other collections like it, no collections made in the 1920s and 1930s, on this scale, that exist in situ being brought to market in this way.
Do the dozen pieces by Wharton Esherick in the upcoming sale represent everything that remains that he made for Hedgerow Theatre? This represents everything he made in the way of furniture and woodworking.
What’s the world auction record for a piece by Wharton Esherick? It’s a sculpted-top buffet that sold at Rago in 2009 for $335,500.
Do you think the Thunder Table will meet or beat that number? There are several reasons it could set a new record for Wharton Esherick: because it’s from his early period, because of its connections to Hedgerow Theatre, and because it stands alone as a singular piece of studio furniture from the period. With this table, you are able to tell the story of Wharton Esherick’s connection to Hedgerow Theatre, arguably his single biggest influence as an artist. You’re not only able to show a masterwork by the dean of American woodworking, you’re able to tell the story of what made Wharton Esherick who he was.
Why is Hedgerow Theatre selling these Wharton Esherick pieces now? When Esherick created furniture for Hedgerow Theatre, it was utilitarian and used almost daily. Today, the value of the Thunder Table makes it very difficult to operate [the theater’s green room as a reception area] because it becomes a room that houses a table–not very functional for a theater. They’re selling so they can continue to produce theater and let another institution take over the stewardship of these pieces.
Why will Wharton Esherick’s Thunder Table stick in your memory? It’s the kind of piece you never forget. It’s a piece you know about, read about, and see at Hedgerow Theatre, knowing the relationship between Esherick and the theatre. It will forever carry that history with it. It captures a moment in time and all the years of service. It represents the artistic spirit of the theater and Esherick’s own ideals–can you live true to yourself in the arts? It tells the story of Hedgerow Theatre and Wharton Esherick, and [it lets an] audience experience both in a way they can’t experience it otherwise.
How to bid: The Wharton Esherick Thunder Table, made for Hedgerow Theatre, will be in an upcoming Design auction at Freeman’s. Originally scheduled for March 31, 2020, the sale has been postponed to June.
Tim Andreadis previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Phillip Lloyd Powell double bed, a George Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs, which sold for $187,500; an Albert Paley coffee table that commanded $8,125; and a Wharton Esherick sculpture that set a world auction record for the artist.
Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.
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