In recent years, the debate regarding attribution of Newport versus Providence block-and-shell furniture has been ongoing. Such iconic objects were once ascribed solely to Newport cabinetmakers, but a body of Providence work is now emerging. The most recent installment in this debate is the published research of Wendy Cooper and Tara Gleason of Winterthur ("A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments" in American Furniture, Luke Beckerdite, ed., (The Chipstone Foundation, 1999) pp. 162-208.). This article clearly outlines a distinctive group of Providence-made furniture.
Some elements of the clock offered here correspond closely to this group. Most apparent is the presence of an architecturally inspired pediment, with "boxed" sides in keeping with many of the Providence cases, and with the fagade of Joseph Brown's house built in Providence in 1773-1774. The swan's necks of the scrolled pediment terminate in rosettes, a comparatively rare feature of Newport pediments. Furthermore, the cup-and-flame finials of the Providence examples are generally truncated, as seen on this example, when compared to their Newport counterparts.
However, these design elements alone are not sufficient to firmly attribute this case to Providence. As Cooper and Gleason note, the shells on the Providence group are carved from the solid, rather than applied as is typical of Newport craftsmanship. This clock has an applied shell on the door, and the half-round perimeter of the shell is not "relieved" to create a hollow arc as most of the Providence attributed shells are. Furthermore, the rosettes of this example are carved from the solid, rather than applied as with the Providence attributed clocks. The nine-petal design of the rosette is also out of keeping with the eight-petal Providence rosettes. The design of this shell is also different from those of the other Providence attributed clocks. While it is relatively short, in keeping with those examples, the flutes at the base of the shell are quite large and notably different. These broad flutes are flat at the bottom and stop short of the terminating scrolls of the bottom lobes of the shell, and in this regard have affinities to Newport shells such as those of a bureau once owned by the Moses Brown family of Newport (see Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport (Tenafly, New Jersey, 1984) p.312). The "boxed" pediment is found on other Newport attributed clocks (see for example Moses, figure 7.17, which shares many design elements with the clock offered here, including a straight fluted plith for the central finial), and other Providence attributed clocks are known that lack this feature (see Cooper and Gleason, fig. 32 and 33). The distinctive, fully developed Gothic-inspired blind-fretwork of the pediment on this clock is apparently singular among Rhode Island clocks. This element appears on only one other known case from either Newport or Providence- the well-known kneehole bureau by Daniel Goddard of Newport (see Moses, p. 265.)
In short, even the great strides in scholarship that have been made in recent years have left some uncertainty in distinguishing between the products of Newport craftsmen and their closely allied neighbors in Providence. Despite its apparent affinities with the recently attributed Providence group, this clock, with its carved and applied shell on the door, solid-carved rosettes, and its blind fretwork on the boxed pediment, may well have been made to order in a Newport cabinet shop for one of the city's wealthy customers.