With an attribution to colonial Newport's most prosperous cabinetmaker, this previously unknown high chest is a highly significant addition to the oeuvre of Christopher Townsend and an important record of the early development of Newport's famous shell-carved furniture. The high chest survives in a remarkable state of preservation and appears to retain not only its original brasses, but also its original finial.
Christopher Townsend (1701-1787), along with his brother Job (1699-1765), was one of the progenitors of the renowned Townsend-Goddard family dynasty of cabinetmakers that dominated Newport's furniture industry during the eighteenth century. Through a financially advantageous marriage to Patience Easton (1703-1789), substantial land holdings and a flourishing cabinetmaking business, Christopher was a wealthy craftsman and his tax payments and estate were greater than those of all other Newport cabinetmakers of the period (Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), pp. 48-51; Luke Beckerdite, "The Early Furniture of Christopher and Job Townsend," American Furniture 2000, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (The Chipstone Foundation, 2000), pp. 3-13). Located on Easton's Point, the waterfront area originally owned by his wife's ancestors, Christopher's shop at 74 Bridge Street still stands today (fig. 1). This property was inherited by his son John Townsend (1733-1809), the maker of some of Newport's most accomplished block-and-shell furniture from the 1760s to early 1790s. Trained by his father, John may very well have been working in Christopher's shop at the time this high chest was made.
Displaying a carved shell set within an arched frame and slender cabriole legs with pad feet, the high chest can be dated to about 1750 and illustrates the emerging shell-carved design that was to become the dominant motif of later Newport furniture. These features are seen in furniture signed by or attributed to Christopher Townsend from the 1745-1755 period. Two flat-top high chests with slipper feet and a bonnet-top high chest with ball-and-claw feet (figs. 2-4) have similarly shaped legs, which contrast with the thicker, less curvaceous legs seen on later forms (for example, see a high chest attributed to John Townsend from the mid-1760s in the Kaufman Collection, Heckscher, cat. 9, p. 93). While the interior of this high chest's carved shell displays a seemingly unique design, the use of an odd number of broad, convex lobes in the shell is also seen on the high chest in fig. 4 and Christopher's tour-de-force of cabinetwork, the desk-and-bookcase in fig. 5.
Furthermore, the high chest features construction methods that also appear on other examples of case furniture by Christopher Townsend. As noted by Luke Beckerdite, one of the features that distinguishes the work of Christopher and Job, Sr. is Christopher's use of shallow channels or rabbets cut into the interior corners of the case to receive the upper stock of the legs, a technique that increased the area of glued surfaces and thus created more secure joints (Beckerdite, pp. 16-17). Such channels appear occasionally on cabriole-leg furniture attributed to Christopher Townsend, including this high chest, the example illustrated in fig. 3 and a dressing table at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Beckerdite, p. 16). Additional features seen on this group of furniture may prove to be additional hallmarks of Christopher's workmanship. The upper backboards on this high chest have circular cut-outs that mirror the shaping of the tympanum; both of the other two Christopher Townsend bonnet-top pieces, the high chest in fig. 4 and the desk-and-bookcase in fig. 5, also display this detail. Another possibly distinguishing detail is the height of the vertical drawer dividers on the lower case. The majority of Newport case pieces employ dividers that run the height of the central drawer, which is shorter than the flanking outer drawers. In contrast, the high chest offered here, those in figs. 3 and 4, as well as a dressing table possibly from Christopher's shop at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, all exhibit vertical drawer dividers that run the height of the taller flanking drawers (David B. Warren et al., American Decorative Arts in the Bayou Bend Collection (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1998), p. 77, F-126).
Finally, the high chest bears handwritten letters on the drawers' backboards that appear to match at least one other example from the Christopher Townsend group of furniture, as well as other examples of Christopher's handwriting. While some letters are barely legible, the drawers on the upper case of this high chest run from A to E. Such markings helped the cabinetmaker organize his boards prior to assembly. With an additional short drawer, the high chest in fig. 4 has its upper case drawers marked A through F. A comparison of the letters on each high chest strongly suggests that they were executed by the same hand. For example, the letter "D" on both pieces has a particularly large loop at the lower left, as does the "D" in the "Case of Draws" referenced by Christopher Townsend in his 1746 bill of sale to Thomas Moone (fig. 6). A similar lettering system was used by John Townsend, who undoubtedly carried on a practice he had learned from his father (see the 1759 high chest signed by John Townsend, Heckscher, cat. 8, pp. 90-92). John consistently placed his letters on the outside of the drawer backs; all letters on this high chest and some of those on the high chest in fig. 4, however, are on the interior facades of the drawer backs.