The discovery of a piece of furniture by arguably America's greatest colonial cabinetmaker is an exciting event, but when this piece of furniture is a signed example of his most celebrated form, it is a truly remarkable occasion. Quietly standing in a New York City apartment, this four-shell bureau table was recently found to bear the pencilled signature of John Townsend (1733-1809), Newport's renowned cabinetmaker and recognized master of block-and-shell ornament. The four-shell forms, more expensive options to the design with arched rather than shell-carved cabinet door, were described by Wallace Nutting as "the supreme pieces of American cabinet work" and more recently by Morrison Heckscher as "represent[ing] the epitome of John Townsend's best work."1
Written with a flourish in the cabinetmaker's distinctive hand, John Townsend's graphite signature appears on the underside of the top drawer, making this piece one of only two known bureau tables bearing his "autograph" (see detail). Furthermore, of the six other tripartite block-and-shell pieces signed or labelled by Townsend, three are in museum collections.2 As discussed by Morrison Heckscher, Townsend's signatures and labels appear only on his more elaborate forms and the cabinetmaker's self-identification reflects the pride he took in his work. During his fifty-year career, John Townsend employed three methods of identifying his furniture, with the signature seen on the bureau table offered here his earliest device that was later supplanted by signed and then printed labels. Townsend's graphite signature appears on seven other pieces, six of which--two high chests, a document cabinet, a dining table and two card tables--are known to pre-date 1770. That these signatures were meant to be seen is indicated by their size and prominent locations. The other three full-size casepieces in the group are signed on the top drawer or for two-case forms, the top drawer of the lower case (fig. 3), a location that approximates the placement of the signature on this bureau table. The signatures on the other forms are similarly delineated in large script in pencil that fills the width of the drawer's bottom board, treating this board, in Heckscher's words, like "an oversize sheet of paper." In his discussion of the signed examples, Heckscher remarks, "These early pieces show John's already strong sense of his own exceptional talents and his compelling need to declare his authorship of certain pieces," a comment that applies to this newly discovered Townsend masterpiece.3
John Townsend's exquisite craftsmanship remained remarkably consistent over time, yet details seen in the ornament and construction of this bureau table further indicate that it was made early in his career. As documented by the signed and dated chests-of-drawers in figs. 1 and 2, John Townsend made minor changes in his decorative carving and in the joinery of the top boards and the rear feet brackets of his tripartite block-and-shell casepieces over the course of almost thirty years. On the 1765 chest-of-drawers (fig. 1), the lobes of the concave shell are separated by fillets, the concave shell lacks an incised border, the interior of all the carved shells are embellished with fluted petals, the top is affixed to a two-batten subtop with screws and the rear foot brackets abut the side brackets. In contrast, the 1792 chest (fig. 2) has a concave shell lacking fillets but with an incised border, a basket-weave pattern decorating the center of each shell, a top joined to the two-batten subtop with a sliding "bow-tie" or "double-dovetailed" key (of which only the top half is visible from the back), and rear feet brackets that are affixed to the side brackets with a sliding dovetail. As the 1765 slant-front desk at the US Department of State bears a concave shell with incised border and lacking fillets, these two design alterations were adopted early on. Of these variable details, the bureau table offered here displays all those seen on the 1765 examples, except for its use of a "bow-tie" key in the joinery of the top, suggesting that it was made soon after the mid-1760s and that the "bow-tie" key was one of the first modifications made by Townsend to his formula for cabinetwork construction. Apart from the bureau tables at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 4), which is probably the earliest of the group, and the Art Institute of Chicago, which has its top screwed to the subtop, the others attributed to Townsend all display more of the "later" variable features as illustrated in the 1792 chest. Townsend's preferred methods and hallmark traits that remained constant are also seen on this bureau. These include convex and concave shells with even and odd numbers of lobes respectively, an unusual arrangement of glueblocks supporting the feet (with the vertical block abutting the mitred junction of the horizontal blocks, rather than the bottom of the case) and exceptionally refined cabinetwork throughout.4
The brasses on this bureau are remarkable for their original surface. As observed by independent conservator, Christine Thomson of Salem, Massachusetts, these brasses retain much of their first coating, an organic varnish that would have been baked on to the plates at the time of their manufacture in Birmingham, England. This coating is evident in the greenish-hued areas and may have first contained a tinted pigment, which being fugitive is no longer apparent. That the coating survives on these brasses is a remarkable occurrence as such flat surfaces were invariably cleaned and polished. Like his cabinetwork, the brasses chosen by John Townsend to adorn these casepieces display little variation. Those on the bureau offered here, as well as those on four of the five kneehole bureaus in public collections, are identical in design and appear to be original; the originality of those privately owned cannot be confirmed, but two of the three have brasses of the same pattern. The brasses were imported from England and the model appears in a Birmingham trade catalogue, a copy of which was almost certainly available in Newport at the time (fig. 6). The only kneehole bureau with variant brasses that are known to be original is that in fig. 4, believed to be the earliest of the group, and was probably made before Townsend, as Heckscher argues, consciously selected two distinct Rococo patterns, one for block-and-shell furniture, as seen on these bureau tables, and the other for flat-fronted furniture. Townsend used these two patterns accordingly before he updated his forms in the late 1780s with Neoclassical brasses with small oval plates and bail handles, as seen on the 1792 chest in fig. 2.5
THE PELL FAMILY OF NEW YORK AND NEWPORT
The bureau was previously owned by Charles Henry Coster (1898-1977), known as Henry, whose notations in family documents indicate that it had been inherited from his mother's relations in the Pell family. In a 1961 letter to his wife and sisters, he noted that it was "an old Pell piece" and in an undated inventory of possessions, he described it as a "Pell Piece. Was at one time in Tuxedo house." The son of noted New York banker Charles Henry Coster (1852-1900) and Emily Pell (1857-1933), Henry Coster was raised in Manhattan and Tuxedo Park, New York and later settled on a farm near Warwick, New York. Described as a gentleman farmer and scholar, Henry hailed from two of New York's most prestigious families. On his father's side, he was descended from John Gerard Coster (1762/3-1844) who emigrated from Holland soon after the American Revolution and became a prominent New York merchant. On his mother's side, the Pell family fortune was established by Thomas Pell (1608-1669), the first Lord of Pelham Manor who had purchased vast tracts of land in Westchester County and the Bronx, and further increased by the mercantile pursuits of later generations. The bureau most likely entered the Pell family during the nineteenth century when Newport became a summer destination for America's elite. Charles Henry Coster and Emily Pell married in Newport in 1886 and the 1885 Newport summer residence of Herbert Claiborne Pell (1853-1926), Emily's brother and uncle and godfather to Henry Coster, was in Easton's Point, the area occupied a century earlier by the city's most renowned cabinetmakers, including John Townsend. Both Coster and Pell were also closely acquainted with Pierre Lorillard IV (1833-1901), the first owner of "The Breakers" and one of the most prominent figures in Newport during the late nineteenth century. Coster stayed with Lorillard in Newport, while Pell and Lorillard were partners in the same law firm and in 1883, Pell married Lorillard's niece, Katherine (Kitty) Lorillard Kernochan. It is possible that the bureau was acquired locally during these summer sojourns by Emily, Herbert or another member of the Pell family.6
One Pell family member, however, stands out as having not only more significant ties to Newport, but an indirect link to one of Townsend's known patrons. A Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island, the Hon. Duncan Campbell Pell (1807-1874) was Emily (Pell) Coster's uncle and thus great-uncle to Henry Coster. Born in New York, Duncan C. Pell was a banker and had moved to Newport by 1856, when he is recorded as living on Mary Street, in the center of Newport and not far from Easton's Point. His house had been built in 1737 for merchant David Chesebrough (Cheeseborough) (1702-1782) and sold in 1795 by Chesebrough's heirs to Christopher Grant Champlin (1768-1840). Interestingly, it is very likely that Christopher Townsend (1701-1787), John's father, was responsible for some of the interior woodwork in the Chesebrough house. As discussed by Luke Beckerdite, Christopher Townsend was the house joiner for the Colony House Council Chamber and probably worked on the interiors of Trinity Church and the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House, three of the buildings noted by Antoinette F. Downing and Vincent J. Scully, Jr. to share woodwork details closely resembling the staircase newel posts and parlor panelling of the Chesebrough house. Christopher Grant Champlin died without any direct heirs and the Chesebrough house passed to his great nephew who sold it to Duncan C. Pell. Evidence indicates that the sale of the house included some contents and if this bureau was among these household goods, it may have been made for the Chesebrough or Champlin family. Christopher Grant Champlin's uncle, George Champlin (1738-1809) is believed to have been the first owner of three examples of furniture labelled by John Townsend now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the dated 1765 block-and-shell chest-of-drawers in fig. 1. Townsend may have made this bureau for George Champlin around the same time as this chest; alternatively, he may have made it for George's brother and Christopher Grant Champlin's father, Christopher Champlin (1731-1805), who travelled to the West Indies in 1762 and returned to Newport with mahogany boards that were supposedly made into a bureau. Furthermore, the provenance of the Champlin family papers, which were found in the attic of the Mary Street house after the death of Duncan C. Pell's widow, Anna (Clarke) Pell (1818-1899), indicates that at least some Champlin family possessions remained in the house after it was purchased by Pell. Anna outlived her children and her direct heirs comprised grandchildren living far afield; thus, upon her death, the contents of her house may have been dispersed among relations living nearby.7
As indicated by Henry Coster's notes, the bureau was at one time among the furnishings of a house in Tuxedo Park, New York, the exclusive country resort established by Pierre Lorillard IV in 1885 as an alternative to the Newport social scene. Henry's father, Charles Henry Coster, and his uncle, Herbert Claiborne Pell were active early members of the community and served on its Governing Committee. Both lived in large estates on Tower Hill Road designed by architect William A. Bates (1853-1922), with Pell's built in 1888 and Coster's in 1894. While it is possible that the bureau was in the Pell house, it was most likely in that of Henry's parents, a Victorian rendition of an English manor house from the Middle Ages (fig. 5). When later owned by Henry, the bureau table stood in the hall of his farmhouse near Warwick, New York, located just twenty five miles west of Tuxedo Park.8
1. Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (New York, 2005), pp. 126, 128. Seven block-and-shell kneehole bureau tables attributed to John Townsend are known and comprise those in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 4), The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Winterthur Museum and Yale University Art Gallery, as well as two privately owned. An eighth example, noted to be signed "J. Townsend," is also privately owned. For those in public collections, see Heckscher 2005, pp. 126-131, cats. 23-27 and the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery (RIFA), nos. 231, 271, 661, 1430 and 3607. For those owned privately, see Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, New Jersey, 1984), pp. 134, 162, figs. 3.59, 3.86 and RIFA nos. 1784, 1785. For the example said to bear Townsend's signature, see Wayne Pratt, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (Sept. 1991), p. 268 and Johanna McBrien, "A Sense of Place," Antiques and Fine Art (Winter/Spring 2009), pp. 210-211. That illustrated as fig. 3.59 in Moses has been noted to bear a John Townsend label dated 1769; however, while the piece is attributed to Townsend, the label does not appear to be authentic; see Moses, p. 100, fig. 3.4 and Heckscher 2005, p. 11 (fn. 7).
2. The six other tripartite block-and-shell pieces signed or labelled by Townsend comprise a 1765 chest-of-drawers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 1), a 1765 slant-front desk at the US Department of State, a 1790s chest-of-drawers at Colonial Williamsburg, a document cabinet, a 1792 chest-of-drawers (fig. 2), and the bureau table referenced above. See Heckscher 2005, pp. 106-114, 118-119, cats. 16-18, 20 and RIFA nos. 14, 97, 1816, 21, 1472. In addition to these pieces, two Townsend-labeled clockcases with single convex blocking and shell carving are known, see ibid., pp. 120-125, cats. 21, 22.
3. Heckscher 2005, pp. 61-62. In addition to the bureau table referenced in fn. 1, the six other examples signed by John Townsend comprise a 1756 high chest, a 1756 dining table, a 1759 high chest, a document cabinet (1755-1765), a 1762 card table and a related card table (1760-1770). See Heckscher 2005, pp. 76-83, 90-92, 106-107, cats. 1, 2, 8, 16 and RIFA nos. 3606, 21, 19, 765; Sotheby's, New York, 20-21 January 2012, lot 186; Christie's, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph K. Ott, 20 January 2012, lot 145.
4. Heckscher 2005, pp. 70, 126; Moses, pp. 94-97, 129, fig. 3.54.
5. Heckscher 2005, pp. 67-68.
6. Letter, Charles Henry Coster to Byba (Vincenza), Helen, Emily and Maud [Coster], 17 February 1961, and undated inventory, family papers; Walter Barrett, The Old Merchants of New York City (New York, 1863), pp. 190-195; G. Wayne Miller, An Uncommon Man: The Life and Times of Senator Claiborne Pell (2011), pp. 35-36; The Newport Directory, 1885, p. 298; "At the Seaside," The New York Times, 29 July 1887 and "Surprising Their Friends: The Quiet Marriage of Miss Kernochan and Mr. Herbert C. Pell," The New York Times, 24 February 1883, both available at www.nytimes.com).
7. The Newport Directory, 1856-1857, p. 52; Antoinette F. Downing and Vincent J. Scully, Jr, The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1915 (2nd edition, New York, 1967), pp. 63, 67, 71, 443, pls. 92, 94; Luke Beckerdite, "The Early Furniture of Christopher and Job Townsend," American Furniture 2000, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2000), pp. 3-10; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), pp. 167-168, 216-218, 297-298, cats. 100, 139, 192; George Champlin Mason, Reminiscences of Newport (Newport, 1884), pp. 202-203, 385-389; "Finding Aid," Christopher Champlin Papers, The Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 20).
8. Officers, Members of the Tuxedo Club, 1897 and 1898, The Tuxedo Park Library; "Charles H. Coster [House]" and "Herbert Claiborne Pell House," Building-Structure Inventory Forms, Division for Historic Preservation, New York State Parks and Recreation, available at website of Hudson River Valley Heritage, www.hrvh.org).