Delicate forms embellished with exquisite inlaid decoration, the pair of card tables offered here stand as two of the earliest examples of neoclassical furniture made in Rhode Island. Their innovative design coupled with their ownership by one of the region's most prominent families attest to the continued creative and economic success enjoyed by John Townsend (1732-1809) after the American Revolution. Each bearing a label dated 1794, the card tables and their descent to the present en suite are remarkable survivals of their era.
JOHN TOWNSEND AND THE FEDERAL STYLE
One of colonial America's most renowned craftsmen, John Townsend was one of the few Newport cabinetmakers to prosper during the post-Revolutionary era. Born in 1732 into a Quaker family, he probably trained under his father, Christopher and by 1754 at the age of twenty-one, was working on his own. During the next two decades, he produced his celebrated block-and-shell carved Chippendale furniture and, as the tax records indicate, achieved considerable financial success. Though the British occupation of Newport from 1776 to 1779 halted his business activities, he soon resumed his career in the early 1780s and continued to make furniture in the Chippendale style until the early 1790s (see Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, New Jersey, 1984), pp. 65-70).
As the card tables offered here illustrate, his preeminent role as a cabinetmaker continued during the Federal period. At least ten known commissions in the Federal style can be documented to his hand and, though decoratively very different, employ the fastiduous workmanship and many of the same construction techniques seen in his earlier work. Dated from 1794 to 1800, his labelled extant Federal furniture comprise card, pembroke and dining tables as well as a set of side chairs. The tables exhibit the same distinct framing methods as his Chippendale examples. These features include the use of dovetailed cross braces reinforcing the table frames, with three braces joining the upper portions and two joining the lower. As Michael Moses demonstrates, few cabinetmakers used such braces and, with their dovetailed joints, are unique to the work of John Townsend (Moses, pp. 89-90). Such a high standard of habitual workmanship undoubtedly contributed to Townsend's continuing success during less prosperous times. Though largely conforming to his standard practices, the card tables offered here vary in minor details to his other Federal forms. The drawers on the other card tables and the pembroke tables are supported by two narrow runners on either side that are set into the lower cross braces. The drawers on these tables, however, are supported by a wide chestnut runner set into the middle of the lower braces. The same type of medial support is seen on a Chippendale pembroke table labelled by Townsend and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Heckscher, American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Late Colonial Period: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), cat. 100, pp. 167-168; Liza and Michael Moses, "Authenticating John Townsend's later tables," Antiques (May 1981), fig. 6a, p. 1155; for Federal furniture labelled by John Townsend, see Moses 1984, figs. 2.10-14, 3.20, 3.22, 3.77).
Decoratively, the card tables are also remarkably similar to the rest of Townsend's labelled Federal furniture. The tables offered here most closely resemble the set of four card tables made for Captain John Cooke and now in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Chipstone Foundation (see figs. 2 and 3). Also dated 1794, the Cooke tables are of identical form, with the same stringing on the edges of the top and legs, inlaid paterae and three-part bookend inlay. Their stiles, however, feature icicle inlay instead of the pendant bellflowers on these tables. Similar bellflower inlay adorns Townsend's dining and pembroke tables, but with slight differences, indicate that he used more than one supplier for his inlaid ornament. While the tables offered here display a series of six plain pendant bellflowers, those on the other forms consist of five bellflowers, each with burnt hatches. Such slight variations suggest that Townsend did not make his own inlay, but, as was customary in urban settings, employed the services of outside specialists (Hewitt et al, The Work of Many Hands Card Tables in Federal America 1790-1820 (New Haven, Connecticut, 1982), p. 72).
JAMES DEWOLF AND NANCY BRADFORD
OF BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND
Descending in the same family for six generations, the tables were owned by illustrious members of the Bradford and DeWolf families. The tables first adorned the fashionable Federal house of the Honorable James DeWolf (1764-1837) and his wife, Nancy Braford (1770-1838) in Bristol, Rhode Island (see fig. 4). James acquired the house from his brother in 1795 and the tables were undoubtedly commissioned as part of the couple's efforts to refurbish the house in the latest style. Though bearing Victorian and Classical Revival additions, the house still stands today in downtown Bristol (Historic and Architectural Resources of Bristol, Rhode Island (Rhode Island, 1990), pp. 71-72).
As reflected by their stylish home, James and Nancy DeWolf were prominent members of their society. She was a direct descendant of Governor William Bradford (1588-1657), the leader and historian of the Mayflower Pilgrims and her father, also named William, was a Lieutenant in the Revolutionary War. First sailing for the Brown and Almy shipping company of Providence, James DeWolf was a captain before the age of twenty-one and at that time, embarked on his life-long and enormously successful career as a merchant and shipping trader. Largely trading molasses, coffee and slaves, he owned vast plantations in Cuba as well as large tracts in Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and his native Rhode Island. According to one source, he was the second richest man in America in 1815 (second to Charles Carroll of Maryland) and, in 1837, his estate was worth five million dollars. He combined his mercantile ventures with political achievements. An ardent Jeffersonian, he served in the state legislature for over thirty years and, for a brief time, in the U.S. Senate. He was a firm supporter of the War of 1812 and, when the Federal Government was unable to provide the funds, James DeWolf privately built The Chippewa--sailed by Commodore Perry during his successes at the Battle of Lake Erie (Perry, Charles D'Wolf (New York, 1902), pp. 23-41; Brooks, The Story of James DeWolf (Rhode Island, 1950); George Howe, Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle (New York, 1959); M.A. DeWolf Howe, Bristol, Rhode Island (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1930).
Perry's victory was celebrated by a banquet at the DeWolf's new home, The Mount. Built in 1808, the large house was lavishly decorated with Empire mahogany furniture upholstered in red morocco, Carrara marble fireplaces and in the vast drawing rooms, walls painted with scenes of the owner's coffee plantation in Cuba. The Perry banquet was one of many such festivities held at The Mount; other prominent visitors included President Monroe and Daniel Webster (Brooks, p.5). Though they would have been slightly outdated by their new surroundings, the pair of card tables was probably moved from the earlier Federal house to The Mount. Upon James's death and Nancy's just eleven days later, the tables were inherited by the DeWolf's daughter, Nancy (1808-1856). Educated in a French boarding school in New York, Nancy maried Fitz Henry Homer (1799-1856), the uncle of the famous painter, Winslow Homer, at the family mansion in 1828. Though maintaining close ties to her parents and assisting with the financial distribution of her father's estate, the couple lived in the Homer family residence on the corner of Beacon and Walnut Streets in Boston (James DeWolf, Will, presented December 25, 1837, Probate Office, Bristol, Rhode Island; Brooks, pp. 9, 17, 18). The tables continued to descend along the female lines and have remained in the family until the present day.