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John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker

May 6 -September 25, 2005

 

During the second half of the 18th century, the New England seaport of Newport, Rhode Island, became a leading center of American furniture-making, with members of the Townsend and Goddard families dominating the trade. Preeminent among these stellar cabinetmakers was John Townsend (1733-1809), whose meticulous craftsmanship and elegant designs set a standard that was seldom matched. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will celebrate his pivotal role in the history of American furniture this spring with John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker. (right: John Townsend (1733-1809, Clock. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art )

This first-ever retrospective of the renowned cabinetmaker and the first reexamination of Newport furniture-making in four decades will feature some 40 works by Townsend, displayed alongside an additional 20 comparative examples by his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. The works will be drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's own holdings, which include the largest collection of documented works by Townsend, from the Winterthur Museum, and from 15 other public collections and 18 private lenders. A highlight will be the fine and important 1772 mahogany chest on chest, the only known labeled work by John Townsend's cousin Thomas Townsend, which descended in the Gardiner family of eastern Long Island until its recent acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum.

"Townsend was unique among colonial America's cabinetmakers in signing and dating so many of his works," explained Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of The American Wing, who is also the curator of the exhibition. "That practice has enabled scholars to recreate the story of his stylistic evolution with great certainty."

Early in the 18th century, Boston was the dominant urban center in colonial America and the center of innovative furniture design. Within a few decades, however, with the city's decline, Boston's supremacy was challenged as the cabinetmakers of Newport introduced more simplified and elegant forms, replaced painted or veneer woods with solid mahogany, and invented a uniquely American furniture style.

 

Exhibition Overview

The first of the four galleries devoted exclusively to his work will showcase furniture in the cabriole style ­ chairs, tables, and high chests supported on tall, gracefully carved cabriole legs. Featured in this room will be Townsend's earliest work, a drop-leaf dining table, signed and dated 1756 (promised gift of Philip Holzer to The Metropolitan Museum), a scroll-pedimented highboy from 1759 (Yale University Art Gallery), and an exceptional mahogany card table of 1762 (Mr. Eric Noah). In these works, Townsend's skill as a carver of foliage and of claw-and-ball feet was already fully developed.

In the next gallery, case furniture by Townsend in his famous "block-and-shell" style will be displayed. The fronts of these works are divided into three sections, with a concave central element flanked by convex ones. All of Townsend's signed pieces in this style, with dates ranging from 1765 to 1792, are assembled here, showing how the design that he had perfected in the mid-1760s was carried on with little change into the 1790s. On view will be a superb fall-front desk featuring his largest and most magnificent shells (Bequest of Stanley Paul Sax, Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U. S. Department of State).

The third gallery represents Townsend's reaction in the late 1780s to the Revolutionary War years, and his first step toward Neoclassical furniture designs. He specialized in card tables and Pembroke tables (those with two drop leaves), with straight, stop-fluted legs and a spare angular look. A table of 1786-93 shows the stunning effect that Townsend achieved by coupling restrained design with the exceptional beauty of mahogany's grain (The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum).

The fourth gallery will show tables with straight tapered legs, ornamented with lightwood inlays, Townsend's interpretation of the new Neoclassical style. A signed and dated (1796) example of the most important new furniture form, the expandable dining or banquet table, dominates the center of the room (Newport Restoration Foundation).

The exhibition ends with two galleries in which Townsend's work is compared to that of his contemporaries. In the first, a chest and a table, both by Townsend, are shown upside-down; next to them are a chest and a table by other makers, shown the same way, encouraging visitors to compare construction. In the last gallery, examples of some of John Townsend's favorite forms are shown next to similar pieces by competitors like John Goddard and Edmund Townsend, enabling the viewer to determine what is unique about John Townsend's style. This gallery will feature the Museum's recently acquired work by Thomas Townsend.

In addition to furniture, the exhibition will include 18th-century maps and plans or views of Newport, portraits of the people who commissioned furniture, and documents and silver and porcelain that have descended in the Townsend family.

The exhibition is organized by Morrison H. Heckscher, with the assistance of Lori Zabar, Research Assistant. (right: John Townsend (1733-1809, cabinet label by the artist. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 

Catalogue and Related Programs

A fully illustrated catalogue, published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, will be available in the Museum's bookshops.

A variety of educational programs, including a series of gallery talks for the general public and a symposium on May 20 (fee required), will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition. An Audio Guide of the exhibition will be available.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum's Web site.

 

Support

The exhibition is made possible by The Chilton Foundation and The Americana Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Stanley and Judith Zabar, Philip Holzer, and Alamo Rent A Car, Inc.The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg. The symposium is made possible by the Clara Lloyd-Smith Weber Fund. The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The William Cullen Bryant Fellows.

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art's MetPublications, an online resource that offers in-depth access to the Museum's print and online publications, covering art, art history, archaeology, conservation, and collecting.includes the following title available for.pdf download: John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker; Heckscher, Morrison H., with the assistance of Lori Zabar (2005)

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