Chest of drawers

John Townsend American

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 717

The voluptuous shells and shapely blocked drawer fronts of this bureau table, referred to as block-and-shell, became closely associated with cabinetmakers in Newport. Townsend expertly sawed and carved down thick mahogany boards to shape the drawer fronts and applied shells. The fashion for mahogany furniture in Europe and the Americas caused irreparable ecological damage to the Caribbean islands as vast forests were cleared to supply the trade and cultivate cash crops like sugar. 

John Townsend was perhaps the greatest master of block-and-shell furniture, the signature style of Rhode Island cabinetmakers. This chest is one of eight known case pieces that he signed or labeled. Two of the pieces, including this one, are dated 1765; the others date from around 1790, suggesting how long-lived this style was. All are remarkably alike in overall design, decorative detail, and construction.

Chest of drawers, John Townsend (1732–1809), Mahogany, tulip poplar, pine, chestnut, American

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