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John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker

John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker

Heckscher, Morrison H., with the assistance of Lori Zabar
240 pages
234 illustrations
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John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker is a landmark presentation of a supreme cabinetmaker. It presents a catalogue of the documented oeuvre of John Townsend (1733–1809), the great Newport cabinetmaker, and describes the community of skilled makers in which he worked. It gives an unparalleled views of the physical and economical realities of Newport and of the artisanal culture that nourished cabinetmakers who were among the best to ever work in America.

Between 1756 and 1800 John Townsend signed his name to more than thirty pieces of furniture of his own making. These signatures document a remarkable body of work, securing for him a special place in the history of American cabinetmaking. And this is precisely what he intended. The signed examples are, virtually without exception, pieces of the highest quality. His habit of adding the date suggests an acute historical awareness and a determination to document his legacy. Townsend seems to have sought perfection compulsively, and his hallmarks are precision, elegance, and fastidious attention to detail. Labor-intensive refinements are evident in the interiors as well as the exteriors of every documented piece. Here lengthy discussions of materials and construction practices elucidate the personal style that placed Townsend apart from other Newport joiners.

John Townsend was among the most prominent of the large group of cabinetmakers that brought fame to Newport. Boston had long set the style in cabinetmaking and much else in New England, but in the 1750s and 1760s Newport experienced an extraordinary period of prosperity during which it challenged Boston standards. The bonnet-top high chest, the most fashionable and enduringly popular piece of eighteenth-century case furniture, had been developed in Boston. Newport took this innovation and made it altogether richer and more memorable by adding a shell motif to the blocking. This shell, so evident in Townsend's work, became the signature feature, the emblem of Newport furniture.

There were at least ten other joiners, including John's father, Christopher, in the extended Townsend family. The cabinetmaker John Goddard, later widely renowned, married one of John's cousins. Complex business and familiar relationships existed between the various members of the family and their shops. This dense environment has been difficult to explore, and works by the lesser-known Townsends and Goddards began to be identified only in the 1980s. The Newport group of cabinetmakers is examined in detail in this publication, with period documents and maps that bring a new clarity to this complicated milieu. The collateral material includes a Townsend family tree, transcriptions of the wills of Christopher and John Townsend, and a history of the furniture that descended in the Townsend family. An essay on the critical fortunes of Newport furniture and a historical bibliography trace the growth of Townsend's reputation.

Numerous works by John Townsend's contemporaries are illustrated, giving a detailed look at the differences and similarities among various approaches to the same forms. New photography allows Townsend's masterpieces to be seen more accurately and richly than ever before; numerous depictions of undersides and inlays are published for the first time.

High Chest of Drawers, Walnut, walnut veneer, eastern white pine; brass, American
High Chest of Drawers, Mahogany, chestnut, American
Desk and bookcase, Mahogany, chestnut, white pine, yellow pine, yellow poplar, cedar; brass, American
Bureau Table, Mahogany, white pine, white oak, American
Chest-on-Chest, Thomas Townsend  American, Mahogany, chestnut, tulip poplar, American
Thomas Townsend
ca. 1772
Easy Chair, Caleb Gardner Jr.  American, Walnut, maple; wool on linen ground (front panel), wool and silk on linen ground (back panel), silk and cotton tape, silk and wool tape, American
Caleb Gardner Jr.
Side Chair, John Townsend  American, Mahogany, maple, chestnut, white pine, American
John Townsend
Chest of drawers, John Townsend  American, Mahogany, tulip poplar, pine, chestnut, American
John Townsend
Tall clock, John Townsend  American, Mahogany, cherry, chestnut, oak, American
John Townsend
William Tomlinson
Bureau table, John Townsend  American, Mahogany, chestnut, tulip poplar, American
John Townsend
ca. 1765
Card table, John Townsend  American, Mahogany, maple, chestnut, tulip poplar, American
John Townsend
ca. 1786
Drop-leaf Pembroke Table, John Townsend  American, Primary wood: mahogany and lightwood inlays; secondary woods: maple and chestnut, American
John Townsend
ca. 1795
Card Table, John Goddard  American, Mahogany, maple, chestnut, white pine, American
John Goddard
Card Table, Stephen Goddard  American, Mahogany, satinwood, ivory, tulip poplar, chestnut, American
Stephen Goddard
Thomas Goddard
Armchair, Mahogany, satinwood inlay, ash, American

View Citations

Zabar, Lori, John Townsend, Morrison H. Heckscher, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, eds. 2005. John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker ; [This Publication Is Issued in Conjunction with the Exhibition “John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker” Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 6 to September 25, 2005]. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art [u.a.].