The Scots-born cabinetmaker Ralph Turnbull emigrated to Jamaica with his brothers Cuthbert and Thomas sometime in the early 19th century. Records indicate it was probably around 1815, and by 1819 the brothers were established enough to advertise their skills in the Kingston Chronicle. Kingston was a thriving city built on the success of the sugar trade, and the English merchants and officials were a receptive market for locally made furniture, albeit influenced by current English prototypes. While it is believed the brothers worked together for the first years after their arrival in Jamaica, by the early 1820s each had established his own workshop and advertised accordingly, trying to distinguish himself from other Turnbull competition. It is Ralph who was the most successful however, and the only one to label his furniture, perhaps in a bid to distiguish his work from that of this brothers.
The Turnbull style is particularly idiosyncratic, not for the forms employed, but for the lavish use of exotic veneers, many of Jamaican origin, and the use of marquetry to embellish the surfaces. A number of small boxes bearing Ralph Turnbull’s trade label survive, some with handwritten paper keys identifying the various specimens used in the veneers. The present table features many of the traits recognised as the work of Ralph Turnbull’s workshop, and parallels can be seen between it and a labelled table currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The circular top is divided into eight panels, each containing geometric designs, tarsia geometrica, heraldic motifs, and pictorial images, enclosed by a border of doves. The pictorial elements include a cornucopia, a vase and flowers, a musical trophy, and a spray with thistles, roses, oak leaves, and clover. The concave quadriform base is decorated with floral marquetry, geometric bands, thistles and acorns. While the individual motifs may have specific significance, some of the meanings are unknown. The quality of the various patterns and marquetry is inconsistent, with the top sections notably finer than those around the base, indicating the table was made by more than one craftsman, with the more intricate and higher quality marquetry used on the most prominent feature, the tabletop. This is consistent with the MFA table, where the variations in quality apparently indicate some work was done by apprentices.
The current table exhibits all the characteristics that point to pieces coming from the Ralph Turnbull and Sons workshop. Highly prized for their originality of design, execution, and rarity, furniture from the Turnbull workshop offer a valuable insight into the colonial period of Jamaica, and demonstrate a distinct identity and the uniqueness of Jamaican craftsmanship.