David’s Table

David’s Table: Object – Prop – Relic

Hannah Williams

In 1789, Jacques-Louis David’s infamous Brutus was exhibited at the Paris Salon, becoming an instant icon of Republican politics at this crucial moment just weeks after the storming of the Bastille. In the centre of this painting is a detail often overlooked in the political narratives surrounding this work – a table – almost hidden by a red cloth, but recognisable by its distinctive feet as the table that David commissioned from the cabinet-maker, Georges Jacob, later credited with inaugurating the early 19th-century Empire Style.

Taking an object from the period famed for the literary trope of the it-narrative, stories in which things come alive, play parts, and relate events, this paper takes a particularly 18th-century approach to the notion of object biographies (Appadurai, 1986; Kopytoff, 1986) and material culture studies of things and their owners (Miller, 2008). Politics and style, the conventional protagonists in studies of David, become a supporting cast in this tale tracing the life of the table from its design and creation, through its starring role in the painting, to its afterlives in David’s studio and in the homes of his heirs. Viewing the life of an object as a series of roles performed, I examine the tensions between these inhabited states, exploring how the table’s aesthetic role as a designed object was frustrated by its theatrical role as a prop, and in turn how this pervasive fictional life denied the table a functional role as a piece of furniture, for whether in the guise of ‘Brutus’ table’ or ‘David’s table’, this object instead became a relic haunting the domestic interiors of the artist and his descendents.


This paper will be presented in the Lives of Objects Conference convened by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, 20-22 September 2013. Below is the rationale for the conference published on the website.

“The relationship between life-writing and objects marks a growing trend in biographical studies. In the first major international conference on the subject, OCLW will bring together scholars and curators across disciplines, at the forefront of research in this dynamic area. The conference’s premise is that objects can have lives of their own. Object biographies raise important methodological issues relating to life-writing, and interrogate the fundamental concept of ‘life’. Object biographies also reveal the importance of life-writing to curatorship: the conference will foreground research questions relating to museum management.

The application of life-writing to objects lies at the heart of many recently published biographies, memoirs and histories, including Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010), Steven Connor’s Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things (2011), Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History (2003) and Lorraine Daston’sBiographies of Scientific Objects (2000). Biographies of objects raise important methodological issues pertinent to life-writing, regarding narrative, structure and chronology; the representation of change and improvement; and the influence of objects in human lives, communities and material history. The study of ‘object biographies’ continues to generate fruitful areas of academic research, including Bill Brown’s work on ‘thing theory’ (2001); Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall’s 1999 study of ‘the cultural biography of objects’ (in relation to archaeology); and explorations of value and exchange of objects in cultural and material history, such as the essays included in Arjun Appadurai’s edited volume The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986). OCLW’s Conference on ‘The Lives of Objects’ will bring together scholars and curators at the forefront of research into particular aspects of the theme, and will provide an environment in which fruitful interdisciplinary conversations will occur.”