One of America's finest eighteenth-century cabinetmakers, John Townsend crafted an array of furniture in Newport's celebrated style, most notably the block-and-shell design seen on this bureau. The survival of a number of forms bearing his label or signature provides a reliable index of his workmanship and displaying all the idiosyncratic hallmarks of his carved ornament and construction, this bureau can be firmly attributed to his hand. Townsend's block-and-shell furniture, made from the late 1750s to the early 1790s, shows a remarkable degree of consistency, yet he refined his practices over time. Both in its decoration and interior construction, this bureau illustrates his later style described by Morrison Heckscher as his "final, preferred pattern."
Details of the bureau's ornament conform to John Townsend's known work and differ from the practices of his contemporaries. As is seen on Townsend's labeled or signed block-and-shell furniture, the outer shells on this bureau have an even number of convex lobes, a design that places a concave lobe in the center of the shell (fig. 1). The vast majority of Newport shells bear the opposite configuration, with an odd number of lobes, the center one convex. The interiors of the shells, each with a cross-hatched center under fluted petals, are virtually identical to those on Townsend's later shells dating from 1769 to 1792. The central, or concave shell, also closely follows Townsend's known template. Its incised surround is seen on most of the documented Townsend pieces, but lacks the scrolled termini. In keeping with Newport as opposed to Providence practices, the convex shells are applied rather than carved from the solid.
Furthermore, the top and the feet are constructed by methods that appear to have been used exclusively by John Townsend. The top is secured to a sub-top consisting of two braces by double-dovetailed keys, with the upper halves of the rear keys visible from the back. Allowing for movement without causing cracks, this technique appears on John Townsend's labeled chests dated 1790 and 1792 (fig. 2) and replaced his earlier use of screws to affix the top to the sub-top. The particular placement of glue blocks supporting the feet is another feature indicative of Townsend's work. Typically, the vertical block abuts the bottom board and is flanked by two horizontal blocks. In contrast, the feet on John Townsend's furniture are supported by two horizontal blocks that extend to the corner with a mitered joint and a vertical block that is placed under this joint-a technique that provided a greater weight-bearing surface (fig. 3). Each rear foot bracket abuts the adjoining mahogany side bracket and is reinforced by a conforming shaped block (fig. 2). This method differs from the usual Newport practice in which the rear bracket slides into a groove in the side bracket and has no exterior reinforcing block.
With its central door flush with the fagade, the form is a variation upon the more common kneehole design and appears to have been a rarity in Townsend's shop. Aside from an almost identical example in the collection of Winterthur Museum (fig. 4), no other such American bureau tables are known while a late 1750s cabinet signed by Townsend at Chipstone provides a conceptual antecedent. The central concave blocking, uninterrupted by drawer divisions, is analogous to the design seen on other forms with doors, such as the upper doors on block-and-shell desk-and-bookcases and prospect doors on Newport slant-front desks. A comparison between this bureau and the example at Winterthur indicates that for large areas, such as the backboards, top drawer bottom, dustboard under the top drawer and the bottom board, Townsend used poplar and chestnut interchangeably. The bottom of the top drawer is chestnut, whereas that on Winterthur's is poplar, which probably accounts for the grain running from side to side on this bureau and front to back on Winterthur's. Otherwise, the two bureaus are constructed in exactly the same manner and feature details unique to the form, such as the use of keyed braces to prevent warping on the thin mahogany board used for the central door. Both also have applied moldings underneath the top that lack a cavetto molding under the bead, a small deviation from Townsend's usual design. Most likely based on Winterthur's bureau, a sketch of the form appears in the day-book of Jonas Bergner, a Swedish immigrant who worked during the early decades of the 20th century in the Newport cabinetmaking shop of George E. Vernon (fig. 5). In his discussion of the sketch, Bergner noted that the bureau had been attributed by others to John Goddard, but that he thought it was closer to John Townsend's labeled work.
Confirming its attribution and adding to its rarity, the bureau is one of a few surviving forms owned by the cabinetmaker's family. Descending along direct family lines from his son Solomon (1776-1821), this bureau may have been made for Solomon or acquired by him from another member of the household. The only other examples of furniture made by Townsend with a clear line of descent from the cabinetmaker himself are a chest-on-chest and a tea table, both given by his granddaughter, Ellen Townsend, to the Newport Historical Society. John Townsend's will details specific bequests to each of his surviving children and to Solomon, he gives a mahogany desk and clock, suggesting that if the bureau passed directly from father to son, it was given prior to the writing of the will in 1805. Alternatively, the bureau could be one of the two mahogany bureaus willed by John to his children Mary and Charles Feke. To Mary he gives, "my best Mahogany Bureau, which I made for her mother" and to Charles Feke he gives, "the Mahogany Bureau, which was his sister Sarah's." Both his wife and daughter, Philadelphia (Feke) and Sarah, died before 1805. If this bureau is one of these examples, its unusual form might have been conceived for its intended use by a woman. Receiving the bulk of her father's furniture, Mary Townsend may have given or sold her bureau to Solomon as might have Charles Feke Townsend who later moved to Massachusetts.
Upon his death in 1821, Solomon owned two bureaus, each valued at $5 in the inventory of his estate. Born in 1776, Solomon married Ann (or Nancy) Pearce in 1806 and died fifteen years later at the age of 46. His inventory included joiner's tools and an unfinished clock, indicating he was a woodworker like his father. However, the large amount of dry goods suggests that he was primarily a retailer. After his death the bureau may have descended to his daughter Phila Feke (Townsend) Bullock (1812-1866) or since she was outlived by her mother, Ann (Pearce) Townsend (1786-1874), the bureau may have passed from Solomon's wife directly to her granddaughter.
Named after her grandmother, Phila Feke Townsend married William Peckham Bullock (1805-1862) of Providence in 1838 (fig. 6). As is evidenced by the inventory of his estate, William was a prosperous resident of the city and owned several estates and tracts of land in Providence as well as a farm on Prudence Island. His homestead, located at 230 Hope Street, was a large house and this bureau may have part of "chamber furniture" assigned to each of the eight bedrooms. Both attributed to John Townsend, a china table at Winterthur Museum and a matching basin stand offered by Israel Sack, Inc. descended in the Bullock family and like this bureau may have been made for the cabinetmaker's family. Mary Townsend Bullock (1827-1895), the daughter of William and Phila, married Sullivan Dorr Ames (1840-1880), a veteran of the Civil War and later a Commander in the US Navy. The couple resided at 121 Power Street in Providence and at the time of her death, Mary was living at 172 Cushing Street. Prominently marked by an anchor and cross, their tombstones are still standing in the city's Swan Point Cemetery. Their daughter, Mary Dorr Ames (1871-1946) married Frank Arthur Sayles (1866-1920) in 1892. He, after graduating from Brown University, entered the family's textile manufacturing business and later inherited and expanded its operations to include a vast number of related industries in the Pawtucket region. Both he and his wife made generous donations to various charities, including local hospitals and causes relating to World War I and upon her death, she bequeathed a collection of Chinese art to the Rhode Island School of Design. The couple resided at Saleholme, the family's Pawtucket mansion. Their daughter, Martha Freeman Sayles (1896-1947) married Paul Coe Nicholson in 1917 and continued her parents' charitable traditions by giving donations to hospitals and working for the Bundles for Bluejackets, in support of troops serving in World War II. The bureau passed to their son and is being sold by the estate of his wife, the late Emily G. F. Nicholson (1927-2003).
1.Morrison Heckscher, "John Townsend's block-and-shell furniture," Antiques (May 1982), p. 1151.
2.This bureau, the labeled or signed John Townsend chests and document cabinet have twelve lobes on the convex shells. The 1789 tall-case clock has ten lobes and the 1765 slant-front desk has fourteen lobes. For a list of Townsend's block-and-shell furniture, see Christie's New York, Important American Furniture, June 18, 1998, p. 93.
3.The only difference is the number of petals. The labeled or signed examples have thirteen petals, whereas this bureau has eleven petals. Two forms authenticated to John Townsend by Michael Moses also have eleven petals-a chest at the Department of State and a kneehole bureau at the Art Institute of Chicago (Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, NJ, 1984), pls. 3.88, 3.89).
4.The 1765 and 1783 chests, as well as an attributed kneehole at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all lack an incised surround. For the kneehole, see Morrison Heckscher, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1985), cat. 135.
5.Heckscher 1982, figs. 11, 12, p. 1148.
6.For a full discussion of these construction techniques, see Heckscher 1982, pp. 1148-1150.
7.Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque. American Furniture at Chipstone (Madison, WI, 1984), cat. 34. A Boston blockfront chest formerly owned by Israel Sack, Inc. illustrates another variation of the form with a long top drawer over three tiers of short drawers. See Sack, American Antiques from Israel Sack, Inc., vol. 6, p. 1584, P4637.
8.The only other differences are minor variations in the carved shells, with the Winterthur bureau featuring thirteen interior petals and scrolled termini flanking the central shell. See footnote 3.
9.Jonas Bergner Sketch Book, p. 146, Redwood Library, Newport. See Laura Beach, "Redwood Library Acquires Day Book of Newport Cabinetmaker," Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Oct. 5, 2001, pp. 74-75. Bergner also noted that the subject of his sketch was bought in 1928, re-sold the same year and shipped to Boston. The bureau at Winterthur was purchased from Israel Sack of Boston that same year.
10.The chest-on-chest is illustrated in Moses, fig. 3.92.
11.Will of John Townsend, 1805, proved 1809, Newport Wills, pp. 600-602. Inventory of the estate of Solomon Townsend, 1821. It is also possible, though unlikely, that the bureau entered Solomon's line after his death. His sister Mary's inventory contained a "mahogany case of drawers" valued at $10. She died childless, but willed all of her furnishings to her nephew Charles Townsend (1807-1881), the son of John Feke Townsend and cousin to Solomon's heirs. Some of this furniture was given by Charles's sister, Ellen Townsend to the Redwood Library in 1883. Inventory of the estate of Mary [Townsend] Brinley.
12.Wendell D. Garrett, ""The Newport Cabinetmakers: a corrected check list," Antiques (June 1958), p. 561.
13.Estate papers of William P. Bullock (1863), Providence Probate Court Archives, no. A8434.
14.Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur (Winterthur, DE, 1997), cat. 125, pp. 244-245; Israel Sack, Inc., advertisement, Antiques (July 1999), inside front cover.
15.Mary Dorr (Ames) Sayles, Sayles and Allied Families (New York, 1925), p. 91. For an image of their tombstones, see http://www.rbgilbert.com/log/sullivandorrames.html. According to their wills, Mary inherited all of her huband's property and after her death, her estate was divided between her two children, Mary and Sullivan. Estate Papers of Sullivan Dorr Ames (1881) and Mary T. Ames (1895), Providence Probate Court Archives, nos. A12830 and 1266.
16.Sayles, pp. 49-59; see also "Memoirs," New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 100 (1946), p. 318 and vol. 101 (1947), p. 170.
Fig. 1 Detail of convex shell
Fig. 2 Detail of backboards
Fig. 3 Detail of foot construction
Fig. 4 [Winterthur bureau]
Fig. 5 [Bergner sketch]
Fig. 6 [Mr. and Mrs. William P. Bullock (Phila Feke Townsend)]
Fig. 7 [Sullivan Dorr Ames]