Diminutive in scale but monumental in importance, this extraordinary document cabinet with drawers is a unique form signed by famed cabinetmaker John Townsend (1733-1809) and stands as his earliest known work with a tripartite block-and-shell faade. John Townsend probably completed his training in about 1754 at the age of twenty-one and as evidenced by a dining table and a high chest, began dating his work two years later. This document cabinet was long thought to have been dated 1756 and was accordingly revered as the earliest dated piece of block-and-shell furniture with both the convex and concave shaping. While its inscriptions do not include a date, this document cabinet is one of only six examples of block-and-shell furniture signed or labeled by Townsend and continues to be considered his first attempt at the design that would become a Newport classic. With other seemingly early block-and-shell forms dated variously in the literature, this document cabinet may yet still prove to be the first full-blown execution of this celebrated Newport design (Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend Newport Cabinetmaker(New York, 2005), pp. 104-106).
Based on other signed and attributed examples, the "fleur-de-lis" carved interior of the shells represents John Townsend's earliest style of shell-carved ornament and is known on five examples of his work including this document cabinet. Virtually identical motifs are seen on four other forms by Townsend, all of which were most likely made prior to or not long after 1760. Two of these forms are signed and dated high chests: The first (fig. 1) is dated 1759 and now at Yale University Art Gallery and the second, recently discovered, is dated 1756 (see Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut, 1988), pp. 265-268, cat. 140; Sotheby's, New York, 20-21 January 2012, forthcoming; the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery (RIFA), RIF3606). The other two forms, both firmly attributed to Townsend, are undated but display other details that confirm or strongly suggest their production early in Townsend's career. These include a high chest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has been dated from 1756 to 1759, the dates of the signed high chests (though the beginning date of 1756 may also have derived from the previous misinterpretation of this document cabinet's signature). Supporting this early date range, the cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet of the MFA's high chest are attenuated, undersize and delicate, attributes that characterize Townsend's style prior to about 1760 and contrast with the more weighty and massive renditions made in later years (Heckscher, pp. 74-75; Moses, pp. 192-193, figs. 3.109, 3.109a-c; RIFA, RIF811; for an example with Townsend's later style of leg and foot, see Christie's, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph K. Ott, 20 January 2012, lot 145). The fourth other Townsend piece with fleur-de-lis carving is a chest-of-drawers now at the US Department of State (fig. 2). While this chest's feet are replaced, its brasses are original and appear to be of the same design as those in silver made by Samuel Casey that adorn the magnificent desk-and-bookcase (fig. 3) signed by Christopher Townsend (1701-1787), John's father and presumed master. Such brasses were probably used over a number of years, but the presence of the same design on Christopher's desk dating from about 1750 suggests that they were used by John earlier rather than later in his career (Clement E. Conger and Alexandra W. Rollins, Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York, 1991), pp. 44-45; RIFA, RIF664, RIF242; Heckscher, p. 50, figs. 40, 41; Luke Beckerdite, "The Early Furniture of Christopher and Job Townsend," American Furniture 2000, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2000), pp. 18-19, figs. 33, 34; for a high chest attributed to Benjamin Baker (c.1735-1822) with related fleur-de-lis carving and brasses similar or identical to those in figs. 2, 3, RIF1210 and Moses, p. 194, figs. 3.110, 3.110a-b).
Like these four other forms, this document cabinet displays evidence independent of the fleur-de-lis motif that suggests it was made soon after the cabinetmaker completed his training. The shells on the cabinet are noticeably taller in proportion than those that appear in all other tripartite block-and-shell furniture by Townsend, a body of evidence that comprises at least five other signed works and spans approximately thirty years. Townsend's use of convex shells in this cabinet may also prove to be the first instance of a full-blown Newport block-and-shell design, as other possibly early examples of the design have not been dated earlier conclusively. While single (or paired) concave shells adorn Newport case forms from the mid-1740s onwards, only a few examples with tripartite block-and-shell facades have been dated, at least on one occasion, prior to 1760. Variously ascribed by previous scholars, these forms include two bureau tables possibly from the 1740s or from 1760-1780 and a slant-front desk dated from 1745 to 1785 (Beckerdite, pp. 25-26, figs. 41-42; RIFA, RIF1222, RIF1223, RIF1644).
While Townsend may have experimented with his designs, the fine cabinetry and accomplished carving seen on this document cabinet reveal that he had mastered his art at a relatively young age. With exquisite dovetailing, meticulously planed mahogany drawer linings and carving of the highest caliber, this cabinet demonstrates Townsend's exceptional talents. The grain of the wood was carefully selected to maximize the effect of the design and like Townsend's later bureau tables with flush doors, the grain on the central door runs vertically and contrasts with the side to side movement of the grain on the drawers (for the bureau tables, see RIFA, RIF210, RIF1430; Heckscher, pp. 132-133, cat. 28). Townsend's distinctive calligraphic script is seen not only in the two signatures, but the lettering on the backs of the drawers, which are exceptionally well preserved in graphite. The unusual form, requiring a broad range of woodworking skills, may have been a showcase for his skills upon the completion of his training. While this theory is highly conjectural, the cabinet displays a remarkable variety of features in a small form with drawers, a door, document dividers, carved shells, molded base and turned feet. The latter are particularly noteworthy for their presence on a Chippendale-era cabinet. A full finish analysis confirms consistent surface history. The precedent for turned feet on a mid-eighteenth century form is seen in Newport in Christopher Townsend's desk-and-bookcase (fig. 2). While the feet on the desk are reproductions based on the design of the cabinet offered here, evidence on the underside of the desk's bottom board indicates that it originally stood on turned feet doweled into the case. As the cabinet and this desk with closely related concave shells and turned feet were made as little as only a few years apart, it is possible that John Townsend was creating his piece with the work of his father and master in mind.
Fitted with small drawers and a vertically divided interior, this document cabinet incorporates the storage units seen on contemporary forms with writing surfaces, such as desks, desks-and-bookcases and bureau tables. Small in scale, it may have stood upon a table where in a raised position it would have further resembled the upper section of a desk-and-bookcase. While little is known of its history, the cabinet's portability probably led to its transportation to England where it appeared in the 1950s. The cabinet was part of a collection of predominantly English furniture amassed by Frederick Howard Reed, Esq. (d. 1955) of Berkeley House in Piccadilly, London. Upon his death, the collection was sold at Christie's, King Street and the cabinet, noted to be from Rhode Island, was purchased by dealer John Walton who in turn sold it to Stanley and Polly Stone, the founders of the Chipstone Foundation (Christie's, King Street, Catalogue of Fine English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, Chinese Porcelain and Works of Art, the Property of the Late Frederick Howard Reed, Esq., 16-17 November 1955, lot 235).