Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Attributed to John Townsend (American, 1733-1809)
ca. 1760-1785
United States: Rhode Island: Newport
North American
wood; mahogany; soft maple; hickory; yellow-poplar; northern white cedar; thuja (possible)
Overall: 27 in x 33 1/2 in x 16 1/2 in; 68.58 cm x 85.09 cm x 41.91 cm
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Sale 4180, November 16-18, 1978, Lot 104; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Credit Line
Funds donated in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Clement E. Conger by the Friends of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

The importance of card playing as a primary social entertainment in the 18th century is well substantiated by the large number of surviving card tables. This handsome example exhibits a number of distinctive features common to Newport: the strongly defined ball and claw front feet, the rear pad feet raised on a pronounced disk, the bold, square-sectioned legs with crisp, hard edges, the stylized, incised carving on the knees, the cyma-shaped skirt, and the double swing legs that support the top in an open position.

This table represents one of several variations of the typical Newport card table with square, projecting corners. Whereas others have straight fronts and sides or blocked or serpentine fronts, this has beautifully shaped sides cut from a solid plank of mahogany at least an inch and a half thick.1Moses, 1031, fig. 2; 1034, fig. 32. These sculptural sides are closely related to the distinguished Newport tea tables, which have molded tops, shaped skirts, and four ball and claw feet.2Flanigan, 40, no. 12. Although Newport cabinetmakers made some card tables with four ball and claw feet, the predominance of those with pad-shaped rear ones reflects economy and function, as these tables were probably stored closed against a wall when not in use. When open, this table shows its mahogany playing surface, with four oval concave recesses to hold gaming pieces and a flat molded edge around the perimeter.

Another notable feature of Newport furniture is seen in the superior quality of mahogany that was used and the resourceful way in which grain and natural figuring in the wood were integrated into the designs. The maker of this table has intentionally placed an oval radiating pattern at the swelled projection on each side of the front and a circular grain pattern on the front of each carved ball. Close examination of the handsomely patterned wood used for the sides of the table reveals that they were cut from the same board.

The strong attribution of this table to John Townsend and his shop is based on three other well-documented examples, all of which differ from this table only in having blocked rather than cyma-shaped skirts. The most completely documented table is signed in pencil, “John Townsend/Newport/1762” on the back gate and “John Townsend/1762” on the lower cross-brace.3Cooper 1980, 27, no. 24. A second identical card table descended in the Townsend family and was given to Newport’s Redwood Library by Miss Ellen Townsend.4Ott, 40, no. 34. The third example has the signature “John” and the letter “M” on the rear gate in script that is identified as Townsend’s hand.5Moses, 153, figs. 3.75 and 3.75a. Just as the visible features of this table conform to those of the documented examples, so the construction parallels that of the tables definitely known to be from the hand and shop of John Townsend, clearly one of Newport’s finest cabinetmakers.

Wendy A. Cooper

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.