Displaying superbly carved blocked shells and bearing the label of John Townsend, this chest of drawers represents one of the hallmarks of American design and craftmanship. Long hailed as one of early America's innovations in furniture design, the block-and-shell furniture of Newport, Rhode Island demonstrates the economic vitality and cultural confidence of the trading port city during the second half of the eighteenth century. Merchants such as the Brown family of Providence and George Champlin of Newport amassed substantial fortunes through the maritime trades and parlayed some of their earnings toward the patronage of the leading cabinetmakers of Newport, members of the Townsend and Goddard families.
SARAH SLOCUM OF NEWPORT AND NEW BEDFORD
Inscribed by the owner and the cabinetmaker, the label on the chest's top drawer indicates that it was made for Sarah Slocum in 1792 (fig.8). Sarah Slocum (1771-1859) was the daughter of John, a prominent Quaker merchant in Newport with strong ties to the nearby coastal communities of Dartmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Born in Dartmouth, John probably moved to Newport in 1746 where he established himself as a prosperous merchant and in 1758 married Martha Tillinghast.1 The Slocum family moved frequently between Newport and Dartmouth. Sarah was born in Dartmouth in 1771, but by 1774, the family was back in Newport when John's household contained thirteen members, including three slaves. Possibly related to the outbreak of war and the imminent British occupation, the Slocum family once again relocated to Dartmouth in 1776, where the records of the Quaker group, Our Women's Monthly Meeting, include several entries detailing Martha's request for certificates of membership to be granted for herself and her children.2 The family had returned to Newport by 1782, when they were included in the Rhode Island Census of that year and according to the first Federal Census taken in 1790, their household contained twelve members and one other free person. The next year, John died leaving a sizable estate that included four houses in Newport as well as real estate in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. His three unmarried daughters, including Sarah, each inherited L180 and silverware.3
At the age of twenty one, Sarah Slocum was published for marriage to Thomas Hammond (1760-1803) of New Bedford in the records of the Second Congregational Church in Newport.4 This notification was dated 24 September 1792, just a month before the date inscribed by John Townsend on the chest's label. As her father had just died, the chest was probably a marriage gift from her fiance. Upon her marriage, Sarah relocated to her husband's town of residence, New Bedford (fig. 1). Sarah probably had ties to the Townsend family through her Quaker upbringing. Interestingly, just as she married in the Second Congregational Church, so did John F. Townsend, the cabinetmaker's son as well as Christopher Grant Champlin, a son of one of John Townsend's patrons.5 Furthermore, John's cousin and fellow cabinetmaker, Edmund, appraised the estate of Giles Slocum, Sarah's brother, in 1803.6
Thomas Hammond was born in Rochester, Massachusetts and attended Harvard University, where he graduated in 1787 with John Quincy Adams. Soon afterwards, he was admitted to the bar and settled in New Bedford where he practiced law. During the 1790s, Sarah gave birth to two children, Henry George and Martha Slocum, who later in life settled in Union Springs, New York.7 Thomas died of consumption in 1803, leaving an estate of almost $7,000. His real estate included two houselots and two land lots in New Bedford and a personal estate of $658.04. Sarah inherited the homestead and the personal property, which is detailed in an inventory among Thomas' probate papers and includes the listing of a "mahogany buroe" at $15.00 (fig.2).8 As the first item listed in the inventory and the most expensive single item, excepting beds with linens, the "buroe" is undoubtedly a reference to the chest offered here.
Widowed at the age of thirty two, Sarah married again in 1808/9 to Captain Rowland Robinson Crocker (1770-1852, fig.3).9 Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Captain Crocker lived a daring and courageous life at sea. He first sailed out of Boston, rising to the rank of Commander and, during the hostilities with France, was taken prisoner and held in France. After his release, he married first Rhoda Haydon of New Bedford, who died at a young age, probably during childbirth, in 1807. During the same year, he gained wide acclaim for his bravery in the rescue of the ship Otis during a violent storm. Having saved over half a million dollars in cargo, he was rewarded by Lloyds Coffeehouse of London, most likely substantial owners of the cargo, with L500 and a commemorative silver urn.10 Soon thereafter, he married Sarah Slocum Hammond. Crocker must have spent much of the early years of his second marriage at sea as his obituary notes he made about 165 trips across the Atlantic and, during these same years, he appears to have escaped the notice of the compilers of 1810, 1820 and 1830 Federal Census records.11 In 1833, he gave up his sailing career to take the post of Secretary of the Bedford Commercial Insurance Co. and in the next year, was elected to the House of Representatives. By 1841, Rowland and Sarah Crocker were boarders on Union Street, which is depicted in William Allen Wall's painting in fig. 1. Though painted in the 1850s, the work portrays New Bedford in 1807 and, according to the reminiscences of the artist, features Captain Crocker shaking hands with Samuel Rodman, Sr. under the barber pole.12 Crocker's prominence in town affairs continued in the 1840s and, when his age brought on greater infirmities, he was made a vice-president of the Insurance Company, a post that was well paid, but less taxing than that of Secretary.
In 1852, Captain Crocker died and as his lengthy obituary published in the New Bedford newspaper, the Mercury, indicates, he was widely esteemed for his bravery and generosity. Besides the Otis affair discussed above, the obituary makes numerous references to Crocker's many rescues in the course of his voyages.13 His inventory also reveals his personal interests in the natural world and includes "a case of stuffed birds" and "birds painted by J. J. Audubon." A widower for the second time, Sarah Crocker inherited over $5,000.14 Just seven years later in 1859, she died and, though containing a different last name and written in a shaky hand, her signature on her will written in her 88th year closely resembles her signature written in her 21st year (figs. 4 and 5).
The history of the chest's ownership has been determined through the inscriptions of subsequent owners on the chest, genealogical records and the following note accompanying the chest's exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1929: "Bought from her by Mr. Tillinghast, the husband of Mr. Taber's father's oldest sister. Given to Mr. Taber and his sister Isabella C. Taber" (see fig. 6).15 Joseph S. Tillinghast (1802-1876) was the son of one of Sarah Slocum's first cousins on her mother's side;16 he was also one of the appraisers of Rowland Crocker's estate and the executor of Sarah (Slocum) Crocker's estate and may have purchased the chest at either of these times. Joseph in turn gave the chest to his daughter, Lydia Conner, and, as a comparison of his signature on Sarah Crocker's probate papers and the inscribed label, "[illeg.] give to Lydia T. Conner" (fig. 7) indicates, he followed Sarah Slocum's example and noted the ownership on the chest itself. His daughter, Lydia Tillinghast (1827-1903) married William Conner, Jr. and, probably after being widowed, moved to Springfield where she died.17 Her will, written in 1891, designates her son, William H. Conner (1848-1914), as the main beneficiary of her estate, but after his death, specifies that the estate is to be divided among three of her cousins, including James Curtis Swan Taber (b. 1854) and Isabella C. Taber (b. 1845).18 The former was undoubtedly the author of the "J.C.S. Taber" inscription on one of the chest's cross braces, possibly written at the time it was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1929.
JOHN TOWNSEND OF NEWPORT
Considered the most skilled practitioner of Newport's block-and-shell carved furniture, John Townsend stands as one of early America's premier cabinetmakers. He was born in 1732 to Christopher and Patience Easton, prominent Quakers in Newport. John probably trained in his father's cabinetmaking shop and by 1754, at the age of twenty-one, was working on his own.19 The quality of his extant furniture coupled with the tax and documentary records of Newport indicate that he quickly became a highly successful cabinetmaker and a prominent member of Newport society. In 1759, he signed and dated a high chest bearing a carved concave shell, a precursor to the blocked shells seen in his later case work and, four years later, sold furniture valued in excess of L370 to the merchant, Aaron Lopez.20 In 1765, he labelled the chest and the desk illustrated in figs. 11 and 12, the earliest examples of his fully-developed blocked shell furniture. In 1764, he married Philadelphia, the daughter of the painter, Robert Feke. During the same years, he was appointed Surveyor of Highways in Newport and after 1767, consistently taxed at a higher rate than any other member of the Townsend and Goddard families.21
The Revolutionary War and the British occupation of Newport from 1777 to 1779 halted much of the city's economic activity and the prosperity achieved prior to the War was not seen in Newport again until the late nineteenth century. These forces had a direct effect on John Townsend, though he fared better than most. In 1777, he was among a group of prisoners taken aboard the ship, Lord Sandwich and, after his release, may have relocated to Connecticut. No documented furniture of his survives from the 1770s, but by the early 1780s, he was once again working in Newport. Unlike the fate of the clockmaker Thomas Claggett, who was forced to sell his shop to John Townsend in 1783, John Townsend appears to have been one of the few individuals to prosper in post-Revolutionary Newport. He continued to produce superlative examples of his block-and-shell furniture, including the chest offered here, and, by the mid-1790s, was making furniture in the Federal style. He died in 1809 leaving a substantial estate that included numerous houselots, his shop and a range of furniture.22
While approximately thirty examples of furniture in the Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal styles survive bearing an inscription or label of John Townsend, only nine such case pieces with blocked-shell ornamentation are known.23 These comprise a slant-front desk, a document cabinet, two tall-case clocks and four chests-of-drawers, including the example offered here (see fig. 13). Made over a period of about thirty years, these case pieces show remarkable consistency in construction and ornament. Aside from the document cabinet, which bears elongated shells with fleur-de-lys centers, the shells on the remaining labelled pieces differ only in minute details that reveal slight changes in John Townsend's work from the 1760s to the 1790s. The chest and desk, both dated 1765 (figs. 11 and 12) bear shell centers with stop-fluted petals whereas the later examples, the knee-hole desk dated 1769, the 1790 chest, and the chest offered here all feature shell centers with cross-hatching. Other notable differences include the differences between the 1765 and later labels; on the earlier examples, Townsend employed a completely hand-written label whereas on the 1789 clock, 1790 chest and the chest offered here, he used a printed label to which he added by hand the date of production. A subtle but more sophisticated feature seen in the 1790s chests but not in the 1765 forms is the use of sliding maple dovetailed plugs that secure the chest's top to the two cross braces underneath; the earlier examples join these members with glueblocks and screws.24
1. Charles Elihu Slocum, A Short History of the Slocums, Slocumbs and Slocombs of America (Syracuse, New York, 1882), pp. 72, 91.
2. GHR Scrapbook 814, the Newport Historical Society, pp. 152, 154.
3. Will of John Slocum, the Newport Historical Society.
4. James A. Arnold, Vital Records of Rhode Island 1636-1850, vol. VIII (Providence, 1896), pp. 466, 475.
5. Arnold, pp. 460, 468.
6. Inventory of the estate of Giles Slocum, 1803, the Newport Historical Society.
7. Slocum, p. 139.
8. Inventory of the estate of Thomas Hammond, 1803, Probate Court, Taunton, Massachusetts.
9. Slocum, p. 139.
10. Charles T. Congdon, "Obituary of Captain Crocker," the Mercury, 1852; reprinted in Leonard Bolles Ellis, History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity 1602-1892 (Syracuse, New York, 1892), p. 110.
11. Ibid., pp. 110, 111.
12. New Bedford and Old Dartmouth: A Portrait of a Region's Past, exhibition catalogue (New Bedford, 1976), p. 26.
13. Congdon, p. 111.
14. Probate Papers of Rowland Robinson Crocker, Probate Court, Taunton, Massachusetts.
15. Curatorial files, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
16. Rose C. Tillinghast, The Tillinghast Family 1560-1971 (1972), pp. 133, 134, 198 and Probate Papers of Rowland Robinson Crocker, op. cit.
17. George L. Randall, Taber Genealogy (New Bedford, 1924), p. 127.
18. Probate Papers of Lydia T. Conner, 1803, Probate Court, Hamden County, Massachusetts.
19. Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr., The Arts and Crafts of Newport Rhode Island 1640-1820 (Newport, 1854), p. 16 and Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, New Jersey, 1984), p. 65.
20. Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, 1988), cat. 140, pp. 265-268 and Moses, p. 66.
21. Moses, pp. 66, 67.
22. Carpenter, pp. 17, 18 and Moses, pp. 68, 69.
23. Morrison H. Heckscher, "John Townsend's block-and-shell furniture," Antiques (May 1982), p. 1144.
24. Heckscher, p. 1149 and for diagrams, see Moses, fig. 7.19, pp. 293, 294.