Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker

Morrison H. Heckscher, with the assistance of Lori Zabar. John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker. New Haven: Yale University Press; New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005. xii + 224 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., appendixes, bibliographies, index. $75.00.

The “great artist” approach is a genre of the history of art well suited for the study of painters, as witnessed in the American field, for example, by recent works on Copley, Stuart, Sargent, Homer, and many others. Over time, it has been applied to studies of furniture makers as well, even though chair makers and cabinetmakers, especially urban ones, tended to work in large shops replete with apprentices, journeymen, and specialists, and their products are often (to coin a phrase) “the work of many hands.” Functional works of art, moreover, usually need to respond to the demands and requirements of patrons and the marketplace in ways that do not ordinarily inhibit the more idiosyncratic creations of painters. Thus, furniture and other objects are often more revealing of preconceptions, attitudes, and values among consumers, providing evidence that flows outward from the object to society at large, rather than spiraling downward into the psyche of an individual. Nevertheless, the “great man” approach is apropos for the study of John Townsend (1733–1809) of Newport, Rhode Island, who manufactured a largely homogenous body of outstanding material in a small community and who took the time and trouble to label or otherwise identify much of his furniture as the product of his own eye, hand, and mind.

Regular readers of American Furniture will need no urging to consult this exemplary monograph on Townsend—hardly an unknown figure in the annals of American cabinetmaking and arguably one of the most important—given the organizing institution behind the publication and the impeccable reputation of Morrison Heckscher, its principal author. Nor will they be disappointed. John Townsend manages to bring together nearly all that has been previously written about him, while simultaneously adding substantially to the record. The results are all presented in a compact, beautifully illustrated, clearly written volume. It begins with five contextual chapters on Newport and Townsend, moves to a lengthy catalogue section detailing some forty-eight examples of his work, and concludes with various appendixes that set forth a detailed genealogical and documentary record.

The volume starts by putting Townsend into context, first within the historiography of Newport as a whole and Newport furniture in particular, and then by identifying his furniture’s relationship to that of other American centers, principally Boston, Massachusetts. A chapter on the Townsend family as a whole is extremely helpful in identifying and separating the work of several generations of Townsends, including those who worked in both the “Job Townsend shop tradition” and the “Christopher Townsend shop tradition” (of which John was a part). The identities of individual members of the intertwined Townsend-Goddard families can be difficult to separate in one’s mind, and this chapter does an excellent job of establishing the family and working relations in a clear and concise manner.

The last introductory chapter will be of most interest to collectors and connoisseurs, inasmuch as it describes in detail the diagnostic features that, when present, allow for an attribution of an unsigned object to Townsend’s shop. In addition to sections on his signatures and labels, use of woods, and choice of hardware, the authors present their conclusions concerning several details of construction that in and of themselves are “tantamount to a signature.” These include “the use of unusually small bore (1/4-1/3 inch), perfectly round wooden pins to secure the components” of mortise-and-tenon joints (p. 68); the common use of tulip poplar for drawer sides in conjunction with thick mahogany drawer fronts; standardized chestnut glue blocks; and a unique framing system for tables, featuring a web of cross braces; and so forth. Additional features are identified for Townsend’s case furniture. In all, because of the consistency of Townsend and his high degree of technical skill in joinery and carving, these characteristics are extremely useful indicators of origin.

The catalogue section, divided into four largely chronological groups—cabriole furniture; case furniture (block and shell and flat front); stop-fluted furniture; and federal furniture—intensifies the points made in the opening chapters through a detailed written description and visual look at nearly fifty examples of Townsend’s work. Excellent use is made of supplementary images here, showing many details of construction and ornament as well as some pieces upside down and from the back. (The points made here are amplified by Appendix 1, “Pictorial Parallels: The Furniture of John Townsend and His Contemporaries,” a series of detailed visual comparisons.)

Several points of various magnitude stand out from a reading of this volume. One is Townsend’s ability as a carver, which is emphasized time and again. It is the almost machinelike regularity and repetition of his carved shells and knees that allow for the identification of much of his work. Heckscher likens Townsend’s wielding of the chisel to a painter’s use of the brush (p. 185), and his skill at this task elevates his furniture to the highest realm of American artistic expression in the eighteenth century.

A second point is the reaffirmation of the Newport block-and-shell design as a major development in the history of furniture. Its creation resulted in “a perfectly integrated, and uniquely American, design—an example of the ability of the Newport joiners to demonstrate their independence of thought from the rest of New England” (p. 18). It is “a triumph of American design” with “no precise analogy elsewhere” (p. 18), although John T. Kirk and others have suggested German and other prototypes not only for block-front façades but for block-and-shell designs as well. (A fascinating observation—that the ancestral Townshend family coat of arms of “Three escallops argent” [three silver scallop shells] might have been a source of inspiration for the Newport shell—is tantalizingly noted on page 35 but not elaborated on in any detail.) Another point that is noted, but not necessarily addressed, is the absence of case furniture by Townsend in the federal style, as well as other forms common to Newport (see p. 57). What does the lack of these forms say about specialization or the nature of regional preferences, or are there additional attributions to be made for objects of this type?

What is perhaps most interesting about this work to me personally, however, is the assertion of Townsend’s intentionality in his labeling of furniture. At least thirty-four pieces are known at the moment bearing Townsend’s name, and probably a few more will emerge in the years ahead. Rather than seeing this as evidence of a type of proto-advertising, the authors see it as Townsend’s attempt to secure his place in history and document his legacy. These objects are “the statement that he made for posterity and by which he must be judged. It is the altogether self-conscious record of a supremely accomplished master craftsman” (p. 51, emphasis added). This viewpoint makes Townsend’s ego, while perhaps not on the level of a Cellini, seem almost on a par with that of John Singleton Copley, who felt very much unappreciated by the citizens of Boston and who wanted desperately to establish his own reputation for posterity. To find a preindustrial artisan in early America also striving to achieve an artistic legacy in an overt manner—not only in his own day but perhaps for generations to come—is revealing. It reminds us that the nature and degree of creativity and innovation always need to be addressed in studies of furniture—a sturdy, old-fashioned notion to some extent perhaps, but one that nevertheless needs to survive in the face of approaches that downplay the importance of aesthetics and artistic vision in the study of decorative arts.

Finally, the figure of John Goddard (1724–1785) manages to emerge from these pages as an artist worthy of consideration in the same breath as Townsend. Noted for his “ambition and exceptional talent” (p. 43), he also developed “a distinctive personal style” by the mid-1750s and became “a consummate craftsman” (p. 47) supported by significant patronage from the Brown family of Providence. He, too, was a superb carver, perhaps more talented than Townsend, and notable for the grace, realism, articulation, and modeling of his ornaments. This is all familiar territory, given the attention that Goddard has also received for the past century or so, but it made this reader hope that Heckscher and his colleague Lori Zabar will utilize their considerable talents to tackle Goddard next.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


American Furniture 2005