Consigned by a direct descendant of John Townsend (1733-1809), these chairs are a formidable and important document of the renowned cabinetmaker’s craft. Four other chairs from the same set are known and as the only examples of cabriole-leg chairs firmly ascribed to Townsend, they stand as the basis for attributions of similar forms to his shop (fig. 4, RIF380 and RIF4005). The heft and robust shaping to the cabriole legs and claw feet illustrate Townsend’s “mature” style as discussed by Morrison H. Heckscher. Bearing a “general angularity,” the feet feature tall balls, knuckles and tendons that are sharply defined and irregularly spaced knuckles, a design that contrasts with the more rounded feet seen on contemporary Newport forms made by other craftsmen, particularly Townsend’s kinsman and competitor, John Goddard (1724-1785). A departure from the slender legs and smaller feet rendered by Townsend in the 1750s, the new style was more monumental in scale and first appears on a 1762 card table (Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend, Newport Cabinetmaker (New York, 2005), p. 75). Other hallmarks of Townsend’s practices revealed by these chairs include diaper ornament in the crest, front legs that are squared in the back, squared, unrelieved rear legs and small pins securing the mortise and tenon joints (Heckscher p. 96). Townsend may also have been influenced by Philadelphia practices as the glueblocks on the chairs offered here comprise of two-part blocks with vertical grain placed in front and triangular blocks with horizontal grain in back, a configuration closely following that practiced by Philadelphia chair makers. Townsend may have been aware of these techniques through the Philadelphia-made chairs ordered in 1767 by Providence merchant John Brown (1736-1803), Goddard’s most important patron. With a splat design closely related to those on two chairs attributed to Townsend, these Philadelphia chairs may have inspired the Newport cabinetmaker in both design and construction (Christie’s, New York, 22 September 2014, lot 33; Wendy A. Cooper, “The Purchase of Furniture and Furnishings by John Brown, Providence Merchant,” The Magazine Antiques (February 1973), pp. 328, 330, 331-332, fig. 2 and caption under fig. 6).
Each bearing a T handwritten in ink in the cabinetmaker’s distinctive script, the chairs were among Townsend’s more valued household furnishings. The rendering of the letter T with a looped flourish at the bottom is virtually identical to several surviving examples of Townsend’s handwriting, including the cabinetmaker’s signature on labels affixed to four Federal side chairs (Heckscher, cited above, p. 181). The chairs are possibly two of those referred to in his will as “eight Mahogany Chairs with Claw feet” (fig. 1) that were specified to go to his daughter Mary (Townsend) Brinley (1769-1856). As one of the chairs offered here is marked X, it is possible that the set comprised more than eight chairs and Townsend’s other children inherited the remainder of the set or that the X mark referred to something other than the chair being the tenth in a series. Two of the chairs from this set (fig. 4) descended along Mary’s lines and one is depicted in an 1880s watercolor of the parlor of Mary’s niece, Ellen F. Townsend (fig. 3). It is possible that the chairs offered here were among those inherited by Mary and later acquired by her niece, Phila Feke Townsend (1812–1866) and her husband William Peckham Bullock (1805-1862) (fig. 2) either during Mary’s lifetime or upon her death in 1856. It is also possible that the chairs descended to Phila from her father and the cabinetmaker’s son, Solomon Townsend (1776-1821). For more on furniture owned by Townsend, see Morrison H. Heckscher, "Newport and the Townsend Inheritance," The Magazine Antiques (May 2005), pp. 100-105.
The chairs’ ownership in the Bullock family is documented by the graphite inscriptions Bullock and WPB on the chairs’ frames and slip-seat frames and similar inscriptions on two other chairs from this set indicate that the Bullocks owned at least four examples (for the two other chairs, see RIF4005). Either through inheritance or purchases from family members, the Bullocks owned several other pieces of furniture made and owned by John Townsend. These include a block-and-shell bureau table and very likely an elaborate china table and basin stand. Though previously noted to have been made for the Bullock family, their attribution to the cabinetmaker and ownership in the same family lines as the chairs offered here make them very likely to have been first owned by Townsend (for the bureau, see Christie’s, New York, 15-16 January 2004, lot 546 and RIF210; for the china table and basin stand, see Patricia E. Kane, catalogue entry, Art & Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 (New Haven, Connecticut, 2016), pp. 377-378, RIF1423 and RIF801).
As is evidenced by the inventory of his estate, William Peckham Bullock was a prosperous resident of Providence and owned several estates and tracts of land in the city as well as a farm on Prudence Island. Noted for its “elegance and purity in style of architecture,” his home at 230 Hope Street on the corner of Meeting Street, was a large house and this bureau may have part of "chamber furniture" assigned to each of the eight bedrooms (Welcome Arnold Greene, The Providence Plantations for Two Hundred and Fifty Years (Providence, 1886), p. 358; Estate papers of William P. Bullock (1863), Providence Probate Court Archives, no. A8434). The chairs offered here were among the items inherited by the Bullocks’ daughter, Rhoda Peckham Bullock (1852-1940). Rhoda died without issue and the chairs were inherited by her nephew William Bullock Waterman, Jr. (1889–1959) and are being offered at auction by his grandson.