The scallop-top design of this table was an American innovation and is seen only on a select group of Newport tables made predominantly in the 1760s. With paired ogee contours on the long rails and similar shaping on the sides, many of these card and tea tables can be documented or attributed to John Goddard (1723-1785), while very few can be similarly ascribed to John Townsend (1733-1809). In his discussion of the table offered here, Morrison H. Heckscher notes that it displays the “delicacy and precision of execution” of Townsend’s craftsmanship and its “quality seems worthy of the master” (Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (New York, 2005), p. 87). The recent discovery of a calligraphic A on the rear rail confirms this attribution. Elongated, leaning to the right and with the uprights terminating in scrolls, the lettering compares favorably with other examples of Townsend’s handwriting (see Patricia E. Kane et al., Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 (New Haven, 2016), p. 453, fig. 20; Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, New Jersey, 1984), pp. 102-103). As these card tables were often made in pairs, this marking probably distinguished this table from a now-lost mate.
This example is the only scallop-top card table by Townsend featured in Heckscher’s 2005 catalogue and is one of possibly only two of this form by the renowned cabinetmaker known today. The Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery attributes the table offered here and an example at the US Department of State to Townsend. Two others, one at Winterthur Museum and the other known only by its publication in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, display similar designs and ornament, but are thought to have been made by other cabinetmakers (see the Rhode Island Furniture Archive, RIF4032, RIF 324, RIF313 and RIF4255; Patricia E. Kane et al., Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 (New Haven, 2016), p. 333 (fn. 2); Heckscher, p. 87).
In comparison to Goddard’s work, the ogee-shaped sections on this table are wide, a design that adds more movement and rhythm to the overall form. Goddard’s tables have noticeably narrower ogee-shaped contours that gives their forms a more rectangular and static appearance. Based upon the evidence from only a few objects, Townsend appears to have varied his format. On the card table at the US Department of State, the widths of these contours are narrower than those on the table offered here but wider than those on Goddard’s tables. The Winterthur table and that illustrated in Nutting exhibit the same proportions seen here and suggest that their makers were familiar with the products of Townsend’s shop. Finally, for the only known scallop-top tea table attributed to Townsend, the ogee contours are of similar proportions as Goddard’s (Heckscher, pp. 88-89, no. 7).
This table is further distinguished by its exceptional knee carving. First documented to Townsend on a 1759 high chest at Yale, the scroll and anthemion design appears with a remarkable degree of uniformity on a variety of forms made by a number of Newport furniture makers. In comparison to Goddard’s versions, Townsend’s interpretation of this design is compressed in height and the anthemion contains a greater number of stop-fluted petals. The table offered here, however, features an unusual variation with a pair of naturalistic leaves directly above the anthemion. As noted by Heckscher, this detail is seen on only one other piece of furniture, a high chest attributed to Townsend. Made around the same time, it is highly likely that these two forms were made for the same patron (Heckscher, pp. 87, 94-95, no. 10). Once part of the collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, the high chest was said to have descended in the “Willet-Seaman” family, providing a possible history for the table offered here.