Research on Antiques & Collectibles

NEWPORT ANTIQUE FURNITURE:   A historical perspective into Antique Blockfront Furniture and other curios in Newport, RI

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For almost as many years as the Newport style of furniture has been recognized and admired, antiquarians and collectors have wondered just how it rooted and came to flower in and about the small, provincial Rhode Island seaport. What were the origins of these shell-carved, blockfront case pieces? What factors shaped their evolution? Almost everyone who has written thoughtfully about our colonial furniture has ranked these eighteenth-century pieces among the finest and most distinctive examples of early American craftsmanship. The cabinetmakers of Philadelphia, Boston and some other cities may have fashioned more elaborately conceived and executed secretaries, highboys, chests and the like. But the restrained elegance and the peculiar refinement of detail that characterize the best Rhode Island forms represent a local style of exceptional interest.

Yet, for all the earnest efforts that have been made to answer these questions, no conclusion has been reached by the experts. The matter remains a perplexing and tantalizing problem. Grounds for an inquiry into it were first laid when collecting American antique furniture was emerging from its infancy. In a book, Luke Vincent Lockwood, illustrated and described a mahogany shell-carved, blockfront secretary-bookcase, observing that it had been made "presumably by a cabinet-maker at Newport." It was an excellent example to start with, for it did in fact have most of the salient features of the fine case furniture fashioned by what later came to be termed the Rhode Island or Newport "school" of craftsmen. Foremost, of course, was the blockfront with its alternating raised and recessed panels surmounted by carved convex and concave shells, both features so typical of the finest work produced by this school.

Blockfront furniture was by no means peculiar to colonial Rhode Island. It was produced in other areas of New England and occasionally elsewhere in eighteenth-century America, as well as in Europe. The earliest documented American examples were indeed made in Boston. Also, the shell was a common decorative motif throughout the colonial world – and elsewhere to be sure. But nowhere were these two features more successfully integrated into a distinctive, organic pattern than in Rhode Island. Here, as nowhere else, the blocking, usually carved from the solid wood, extends from shaped panels in the pediment of tall pieces in successive stages down the door and drawer fronts, through the moldings and even into the bracket-shaped feet where they are accented by delicately carved scrolls.

There are some variations in the shell carvings on such pieces, but a Newport type is recognizable, and distinguishable from those of any other origin. In the most characteristic form, the sharply defined flutes of the shell radiate from an inverted C-shaped scroll containing petal-like elements that also radiate within their smaller confines. An occasional Connecticut example approximates this design.

By 1913 five more shell-carved, blockfront secretaries had been brought to light and published by Lockwood, who now opined that they might all have been made by the same Newport cabinetmaker, one John Goddard by name. When another piece in the same style, a chest-on-chest this time, was published in 1922, it too was attributed to Goddard. This report further suggested that Goddard may have been trained at Thomas Chippendale's shop in St. Martin's Lane, London - a comment that was no doubt meant as a tribute to Goddard's craftsmanship. At the time that observation was printed, the influence of Chippendale's published patterns on colonial furniture design was drawing wide attention.

The fact remains that in their special character these Newport pieces owe little or nothing either to Chippendale or to any of the other contemporary English designers whose works were known in America. The basic pattern of the Newport shell carvings can be found in French design books of the early eighteenth century. Whether, however, these might have served as models in Newport is still a matter of speculation. By the late 1920s it had been proven by signed pieces and documents that beyond all doubt John Goddard was a prominent Newport cabinetmaker from the 1750s until his death at the age of sixty-two in 1785. In the meantime, it was learned from other labeled and documented pieces that other Newport craftsmen named Goddard and still others named Townsend had also produced not only blockfront furniture but chairs, tables, clock cases and other forms of a distinctive local style, and that John Goddard (first of the name) had, after a stint at sea, been apprenticed to one Job Townsend and in 1746 had married his boss's daughter, Hannah.

Before getting entangled in a genealogical thicket, let it be recorded that John Goddard sired some fifteen children, three of whom became furniture makers, and had a brother who followed the same craft and who also married a daughter of Job Townsend. Job and his brother Christopher, yet another furniture maker, in their turn begat numerous progeny including sons and grandsons who also practiced the craft. Goddards and Townsends were both Quakers and there were several other intermarriages between the two families. Without going into further detail, in the course of four generations twenty Newport craftsmen bore one or the other of these names. The first of them. Job Townsend, was working as early as 1725; the last, John Townsend II, lived until 1843. Among them they worked in styles ranging from the relatively simple grace of the Queen Anne to the heavy intricacy of the late Empire, with everything in between.

From the beginning to the end these men constitute what was as close to a dynasty of expert artisans as America has ever produced. In any one period, unless a piece is signed or documented, the work of one can rarely be told from that of another. By their numbers alone they must have been largely responsible for the qualities that distinguish Newport furniture.

However, there were numerous other Newport furniture makers in the pre-Revolutionary period. Considering the concentration of their shops in the Quaker lands of Easton's Point, a small area that came to be known as the "furniture-maker's center," there can be no doubt that these men were all intimately familiar with one another's productions and worked within a common framework of style and technique. In that day innovation and novelty did not have the importance we give them today; the quality of materials and the soundness and deftness of workmanship counted far more than any individual originality in design. Were it not plausible on the face of it, there is some solid evidence to show that other craftsmen worked in a style identical with that we associate with the Goddards and the Townsends. It would be no great surprise if proof were found that one or another of them produced shell-carved, blockfront pieces little different from those that have been positively identified with a Townsend or a Goddard.

In any event, there is a surprisingly large amount of eighteenth-century furniture - chairs, table, desks, highboys and so forth - that, aside from shell carvings and blocking, can safely be assigned to a Newport or Rhode Island origin on the basis of their particular stylistic characteristics. The list of those telltale local mannerisms is too long for detailed description in these pages. As a few, briefly told instances: among all the colonies only in Newport were the slender talons of ball and claw feet sometimes undercut to leave open spaces between claw and ball, although this was a refinement practiced in England; cabriole legs are typically square in section and have sharp edges rather than contours rounded all about, as was generally true in the corresponding work of other colonies; the knees of such members were carved in a unique combination of cameo and intaglio designs of leafage in almost geometric patterns; bonnet tops of tall case pieces are closed at the back and paneling or blocking is carried up into the pediment.

From the earliest days of settlement, all colonial furniture displayed more or less pronounced regional characteristics. But the Rhode Island variety was the most distinctively native - original, really - of such provincial versions of the prevailing styles. And in its separate ways is as sophisticated as any of the others.

It is difficult to account for these exceptional developments except for the obvious comment that they must reflect an unusual social and cultural ambience. Newport was a rather small and provincial seaport. At the peak of its growth, just before the Revolution, its population numbered only 11,000 souls, fewer than a third of Philadelphia's, fewer than a half of New York's, and far fewer than Boston's. Nevertheless, it was a cosmopolitan little city and its maritime gentry was sophisticated and wealthy. When George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher, came to Newport with his cultured entourage in 1729, he noted "a rage for finery" among the city's merchant aristocrats. Even the Quakers were apparently not exempt from vanities. One of them boasted to Berkeley that he owned a solid gold teapot such as even the Queen of England did not possess. Just before the Revolution, one of his friends reported to Thomas Jefferson that Newport boasted "the best-bred society in New England."

It was not merely its permanent residents that made it so. Rhode Island had become the vacationland of America, attracting fashionable summer visitors from South Carolina, Barbados, Antigua and other distant points. Among the diversions offered to such transients were pleasure excursions on the bay and races by the famous Narragansett pacers on the beach with silver tankards as prizes.

The pastoral loveliness of the Newport area was renowned. On the country estates in the environs of the city, exotic plants, flowers and fruits grew abundantly in greenhouses and hothouses. One of the most remarkable of these was the horticultural paradise owned by the merchant prince, Metcalf Bowler, with its formal gardens covering almost a dozen acres landscaped with fish ponds, fountains, rare plants and trees and "hothouses with exoticas from all parts of the world." Here, according to the story, grew a legendary apple tree from the Garden of Eden. This, it was said, had been sent in a porcelain tub by a Persian prince of royal blood whose son had been saved at sea by one of Bowler's ships, and it was declared to be "one of the few direct lineal descendants of the tree of knowledge." It was claimed that cider made from the fruit of this tree surpassed the finest French wine. When they were in Newport during the Revolutionary War, General Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, as guests of Bowler's, sipped this home-brewed "Eden champagne" and were amazed by its delicate ‘parfum’. So it was said.

Robert Melville, governor of Grenada in the West Indies, praised these people as "celebrated for their hospitality to strangers, and extremely genteel and courtly in their manners." Many of them were refugees from religious persecutions - Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, who enjoyed the freedom underwritten by Rhode Island's "miscellaneous theology." Prosperous Jewish colonists were among the best patrons of the Townsend-Goddard craftsmen, as well as such prominent Providence figures as Governor Stephen Hopkins, and the wealthy merchants Moses Brown and John Brown.

Newport's Long Wharf, more than 2,000 feet long when it was completed just before the middle of the eighteenth century, and the finest such facility in New England, was the hub of the city's bustling maritime activity. Here and at the scores of other wharves that stretched for nearly a mile and a half along the waterfront, vessels large and small sailed for trade in European, West Indian and the coastal waters of America. It was an intricate business. As one observer reported, "Thus, with the money they [the skippers] get in Holland, they pay their merchants in London; the sugars they procure in the West Indies, they carry to Holland, the slaves they fetch from Africa they send to the West Indies together with lumber and provisions, which they get from the neighboring colonies. By this kind of circular commerce they subsist and grow rich." It might be added that most of the power used to turn the sugar mills of the Caribbean was provided by the famous Narragansett horses.

Fortunes were also made by "the fine art of evading revenue officers" of the Crown; chests of tea were smuggled in between hogsheads of molasses. East India goods were camouflaged as cargoes of herring and Madeira wines and Barcelona silks were disguised as shipments of salt. So many among the city's population were engaged in one way or another in seafaring activity that, it seemed apparent to one reporter, "everyone in Newport had something to sell."

To carry this diversified wealth of cargoes, not to mention the catches of the fishing and whaling fleets, Newport built the best and the cheapest of colonial vessels. Shipbuilding, indeed, played a major role in the economy of the city, providing employment for more than twenty different kinds of artisans and workmen. Seafaring matters preoccupied the entire community. One visitor to the city who attended a weekly meeting of the Philosophical Society found that the members talked almost exclusively about their maritime interests, rather than the profound thoughts they had been organized to explore. A good number of Newport's most distinguished citizens, or those who were to become so, took to the sea to build their fortunes and increase their eminence in the colony's affairs. In the late 1750s, the artist John Greenwood depicted a carousing party of sea captains who had gathered at Surinam - far beyond the reach of their hometown conventions - that included among the very tipsy revelers Captain Nicholas Cook, later Governor of Rhode Island, Captain Ezeak Hopkins, later commander of the Continental Navy, and others of current or future prominence.

The Townsends and Goddards were beneficiaries at both ends of this situation. They not only fashioned the fine furniture commissioned by the wealthy merchants, but they also ventured on the seas themselves. John Goddard's father was a shipwright and in 1743, before he settled down, John himself took to the sea as master of the sloop ‘Bathseda’, carrying rum and molasses between Newport and Philadelphia, among other undertakings. Earlier, in 1718, Christopher Townsend was serving on a ship that was overtaken by pirates who seized the cargo and two of the seamen. Thomas Townsend, brother of Job, Jr. and of Edmund, also went to sea, although not by any plan of his own. In 1757 during the French and Indian War, while Thomas was serving at Oswego as one of the artificers chosen by Governor Shiriey, he was captured by the enemy, taken to Quebec and from there shipped to England in a cartel ship. After his release and his return to America, during the Revolutionary War he was again taken prisoner, this time by the British, while he was fishing in Newport Harbor. After his release, he returned to Newport to work as a joiner. These men were familiar with a wide world when they approached their final calling. Yet, like so many other superior craftsmen, the Townsends and Goddards did not confine themselves to making only fine furniture. Their ledgers list such odd jobs as a "wigg box," a checkerboard, a bird cage, a "Wooden Horse," billiard sticks and coffins. As was also customary, they sometimes dealt by barter. Job Townsend, Jr. once gave three tables and a corner cupboard to a local barber in exchange for "A Year's Shaven, a Cutt Wigg, a foretop to the Wigg, and 24 feet of mahogany."

Aside from the fine mahogany pieces for which they are renowned, the Goddards and Townsends also made furniture of lesser quality on speculation for sale overseas. In November 1764, one Captain Peleg Bunker received from John Townsend two red cedar desks, a maple desk and four maple tea tables, which he promised "to carry to the West Indies their [sic] to dispose of to the best advantage the Danger of the Seas only excepted and remit the neat proceeds in Molasses, Coffee, or Cotton Wool & thereof unto said Townsend he allowing me one half of the profits that shall neat from the price of the said goods it being in Lein of Freight and Commissions." Doubtless, examples of Goddard and Townsend furniture still survive in those various parts of the world that their ships and shipments reached.

And this brings us back to blockfront furniture. Some years ago, while vacationing in the West Indies, a New England collector discovered in the Cathedral at Havana a huge, early eighteenth-century mahogany case piece with twenty drawers, which he believed to be "the original American block front." From his description and the inadequate illustrations of the piece that are available, there is evidence of blocking that with some imagination might be read as suggestive of Rhode Island practice. So far as can be seen, the bracket feet also appear to recall those peculiar to case pieces of the Goddard-Townsend school. There were no shells in the design but, could this extraordinary form, it has been asked, have been seen by one or another early Townsend or Goddard on a seafaring expedition in quest of mahogany or whatever other cargo, and have served as a model that influenced their own designs back home in Rhode Island? Of course, that remains a possibility.