Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

John Townsend (American, 1733-1809)
United States: Rhode Island: Newport
North American
wood; mahogany; yellow-poplar; eastern red cedar
Overall: 42 in x 45 1/4 in x 24 7/8 in; 106.68 cm x 114.935 cm x 63.1825 cm
Presumably by descent to Robert Y. Townsend (1827-1878) and Emily M. Cleland (1842-1875, married 1865); to Israel Sack, Inc., New York; to Stanley Sax of Birmingham, Michigan, by 1975
Handwritten paper label inside the top drawer, "Made by/ John Townsend/ Rhode Island/ 1765."
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Paul Sax
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

The dated label on this desk is almost identical to that on a four-drawer block and shell bureau in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see detail).Heckscher 1985, 216–18, no. 139.1 In total, there are over three dozen documented pieces of furniture by Townsend, ranging from a 1756 dining table to late Federal inlaid card tables, Pembroke tables, and side chairs.Moses, 87–93.2 This body of documented work leaves little doubt that Townsend was a maker who readily adapted to the newest Fashions following the Revolution, but who could also satisfy patrons who preferred an earlier, less fashionable style.

Although case furniture with blockfronts surmounted by shells is characteristic of high-style 18th-century Newport furniture, slant front desks of this form are rare. Desks and bookcases, bureau tables, and three-and four-drawer bureaus are far more numerous. Probably because Newport patrons seemed to prefer simple desks with straight fronts, this desk is one of only three known of this more ambitious and costly form.3Carpenter 1954, 75, no. 47; Rollins, 1112. pl. 15.

The liveliness of the superb mahogany and the large, period (yet not original) brasses relieve the surface of the desk’s massive form. The ogee bracket feet are blocked in a typical manner, terminating at their base in delicate carved scrolls. The interior is characteristic of most Newport desks, whether straight-front or blocked. Just forward of the drawers and pigeonholes is a slide on the horizontal surface, which can be pushed back for direct access to the topmost drawer. The interior arrangement is focused on a central concave door with a shell distinguished by incised scrolls at its ends and a cross-hatched center section.

The desk presumably descended in the family of its original 18th-century owner, but his identity, the family’s locale, and the desk’s precise descent are unknown. In the genealogy conveyed at the time of purchase, one mention of Frederica, Delaware, directed the search to that area, and so far all of the
names (Robinson, Cleland, and Townsend) included in the genealogy have been noted in Delaware census indices. Further research in census and probate records may eventually reveal the descent of this remarkable desk. 

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.