Early in the eighteenth century, Boston was the dominant urban center in colonial America and the center of innovative furniture design. Within a few decades, however, Boston's supremacy was challenged as the cabinetmakers of Newport, Rhode Island, introduced more simplified and elegant forms, replaced painted or veneer woods with solid mahogany, and invented a uniquely American furniture style. Newport became a leading center of American furniture making, with members of the Townsend and Goddard families dominating the trade. Preeminent among these stellar cabinetmakers was John Townsend (1733–1809), whose meticulous craftsmanship and elegant designs set a standard that was seldom matched. This exhibition celebrates his pivotal role in the history of American furniture.
This first-ever retrospective of the renowned cabinetmaker and the first reexamination of Newport furniture making in four decades features some forty works by Townsend, displayed alongside an additional twenty comparative examples by his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. The works are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's own holdings, which include the largest collection of documented works by Townsend, from the Winterthur Museum, and from fifteen other public collections and eighteen private lenders. A highlight is the fine and important 1772 mahogany chest on chest, the only known labeled work by John Townsend's cousin Thomas Townsend, which descended in the Gardiner family of eastern Long Island until its recent acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum.
The first of the four galleries devoted exclusively to John Townsend's work showcases furniture in the cabriole style—chairs, tables, and high chests supported on tall, gracefully carved cabriole legs. Featured in this room are Townsend's earliest work, a drop-leaf dining table, signed and dated 1756 (promised gift of Philip Holzer to the Metropolitan Museum), a scroll-pedimented highboy from 1759 (Yale University Art Gallery), and an exceptional mahogany card table of 1762 (Mr. Eric Noah). In these works, Townsend's skill as a carver of foliage and of claw-and-ball feet was already fully developed.
In the next gallery, case furniture by Townsend in his famous "block-and-shell" style is displayed. The fronts of these works are divided into three sections, with a concave central element flanked by convex ones. All of Townsend's signed pieces in this style, with dates ranging from 1765 to 1792, are assembled here, showing how the design that he had perfected in the mid-1760s was carried on with little change into the 1790s. On view is a superb fall-front desk featuring his largest and most magnificent shells (Bequest of Stanley Paul Sax, Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State).
The third gallery represents Townsend's reaction in the late 1780s to the Revolutionary War years, and his first step toward Neoclassical furniture designs. He specialized in card tables and Pembroke tables (those with two drop leaves), with straight, stop-fluted legs and a spare, angular look. A table of 1786–93 shows the stunning effect that Townsend achieved by coupling restrained design with the exceptional beauty of mahogany's grain (The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum).
The fourth gallery shows tables with straight tapered legs, ornamented with lightwood inlays, Townsend's interpretation of the new Neoclassical style. A signed and dated (1796) example of the most important new furniture form, the expandable dining or banquet table, dominates the center of the room (Newport Restoration Foundation).
The exhibition ends with two galleries in which Townsend's work is compared with that of his contemporaries. In the first, a chest and a table, both by Townsend, are shown upside down; next to them are a chest and a table by other makers, shown the same way, allowing visitors to compare construction. In the last gallery, examples of some of John Townsend's favorite forms are shown next to similar pieces by competitors like John Goddard and Edmund Townsend, enabling the viewer to determine what is unique about John Townsend's style. This gallery features the Museum's recently acquired work by Thomas Townsend.
In addition to furniture, the exhibition includes eighteenth-century maps and plans or views of Newport, portraits of the people who commissioned furniture, and documents, silver, and porcelain that have descended in the Townsend family.
The exhibition is made possible by The Chilton Foundation and The Americana Foundation.
Additional support has been provided by Stanley and Judith Zabar, Philip Holzer, and Alamo Rent A Car, Inc.
The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The William Cullen Bryant Fellows.