Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Attributed to Townsend-Goddard School (Cabinetmakers, 18th and 19th century)
ca. 1760-1790
United States: Rhode Island: Newport
North American
wood; mahogany; chestnut; eastern red cedar; eastern white pine; yellow-poplar; poplar; aspen (possible)
Overall: 32 7/8 in x 36 1/4 in x 20 3/4 in; 83.5025 cm x 92.075 cm x 52.705 cm
By descent through the Watts family of Newport; to Christie's, New York, Fine Americana Sale, October 21, 1978, Lot 296; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
In graphite, on underside of drawer divider (second up from bottom) lower right facing: "Thomas Townsend of Newport Son of Job Townsend/ Deceased of Newport" in script.
Credit Line
Funds donated by The Pew Memorial Trust
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Related Objects

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Townsend, John
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Object Essay

Bureau tables achieved a popularity in America that they never knew abroad. Neither as utilitarian as a four-drawer chest nor as practical as a cabriole-leg dressing table, the popular block and shell model must have functioned in Newport foremost as a status symbol. The survival of fifty or more Newport block-and-shell bureau tables attests to both their popularity and the prosperity of Rhode Island’s merchants and entrepreneurs.1Monkhouse and Michie, 85, no. 31. 

The best-known labeled bureau table from Newport may be the one made by Edmund Townsend (1736/7–1811), a contemporary and cousin of John Townsend.2The labeled Edmund Townsend bureau table is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See Hipkiss, cat. no. 38. The shells on the labeled Townsend bureau are virtually identical to those on the Department of State’s example, differing from the typical John Townsend shells principally in the way the inner C-scroll relates to the outer lobes at the scroll terminations. The cornice molding of the Collection bureau is like the Edmund Townsend example, having a bead below the cove different from the cavetto used by John Townsend. The ogee-bracket feet of the Collection’s bureau table are similar to those on Edmund Townsend’s product, with fully articulated scrolls at the base of the blocking and knee brackets that meet in the middle without a space. The original brasses with spurred bails on this example echo the scrolled rococo shaping of the backplates in a sculptural way.3Moses, pl. 20.

This bureau table is the most expensive model a client could request. It has three shells across the top drawer (the two convex shells are carved and applied, while the central shell is cut from the solid drawer front); in addition, the door of the recessed center section has concave blocking surmounted by a concave shell that echoes the larger one just above it. If a client preferred less carving or expense, he might request that the door to the compartment be made with a fielded panel having an arched top, like the one Edmund Townsend made for John Desham of New London, Connecticut.4Ibid., 252, 263, fig. 6.11. For an additional fee, one could order the top drawer fabricated as a writing desk, fitted with blocked drawers and pigeonholes.5Monkhouse and Michie, 84, no. 30.

Wendy A. Cooper 

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.