Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830

For my North American reader: Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 – an exhibition, August 19, 2016–January 8, 2017.

mahogany_desk_&_bookcase_by_Christopher_Townsend_c1745–50_01aMahogany ‘desk and bookcase’ by Christopher Townsend, circa 1745–50. (Yale University)

This groundbreaking exhibition presents a comprehensive survey of Rhode Island furniture from the colonial and early Federal periods, including elaborately carved chairs, high chests, bureau tables, and clocks. Drawing together more than 130 exceptional objects from museums, historical societies, and private collections, the show highlights major aesthetic innovations developed in the region. In addition to iconic, stylish pieces from important centers of production like Providence and Newport, the exhibition showcases simpler examples made in smaller towns and for export. The exhibition also addresses the surprisingly broad reach of Rhode Island’s furniture production, from the boom of the export trade at the turn of the 17th century and its steady growth throughout the 18th century to the gradual decline of the handcraft tradition in the 19th century. Reflecting on one of New England’s most important artistic traditions, Art and Industry in Early America encourages a newfound appreciation for this dynamic school of American furniture making.

Source: Yale University

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques, Exhibitions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830

  1. paul6000000 says:

    I haven’t seen that style of foot before. It looks like buns photoshopped onto brackets. Now that I think about it, I guess a club foot or a ball and claw is sort of like a bun foot growing out of a bracket.

    Side note: I recently visited the Metroplitan Museum in NYC and made a point of hunting down all the William and Mary chests (getting ready to copy one in your projects). A funny thing I noticed was that every American piece (I think I found about a dozen) had plain sides. Looking at the grain, I got the impression that it was solid wood.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      The English bun foot owes its existence to the Chinese turned foot which first made its appearance on imported furniture in the last quarter of the seventeenth-century. The Chinese turned foot was situated below either a simplistic bracket, or shaped plinth that surrounded the base of the casework.

      The English bun foot developed as a separate entity, while the English bracket foot developed as a stylised combined Chinese bracket and silhouette turned foot.

      JP

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    • The turned feet on the desk are recent replacements that were not with the desk when it sold at Sotheby’s. The bracket feet were present and very likely original. However, there are square mortises cut in the bottom of the bracket feet, not the drilled holes commonly seen for a turned foot attachment.
      http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/11/garden/design-notebook-oh-the-tales-a-secretary-could-tell.html?pagewanted=all

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      • Jack Plane says:

        Thank you Christopher for your valued input.

        I know very little about North American furniture and its construction: Is it possible the square mortises were to accommodate square spigots of feet turned from laminated blocks?

        JP

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        • It’s hard to know. I have not seen square holes of the type on this desk before and so have not seen a foot associated with such a square hole. We’re all familiar with the 1720s British case forms that have short bracket feet with turned feet below and the Newport desk may reflect that style, with a square tenon cut on top of a round, turned foot.
          Two other point about this desk that can’t been seen in the photo – it is mahogany throughout, no secondary woods are used, all the drawer linings, backboards, etc. are mahogany. And the handles and knobs are solid silver, not brass.

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  2. Ken says:

    Jack, are drawer pull styles something that is specific to a region?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      The short answer has to be no. Even in the early eighteenth-century, brass founders’ catalogues made all patterns available to all regions.

      The firm of Gillows in Lancaster had some of their brasses produced to their own designs, however their furniture sold globally.

      JP

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  3. Tim Raleigh says:

    Thanks, hopefully I have time to go see this. I will definitely get the book.

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  4. Tim Shaw says:

    Thank you, Jack Plane. I live in Boston, 130 miles away from Yale, but I wouldn’t have heard of this show unless you notified me from Australia. Will definitely go down and see it. The book looks good too.

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  5. Eric Rusch says:

    I am quite sure some of the members of my Guild will attend this exhibit.
    Some beautiful pieces will be displayed.

    Thanks jack Plane.

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  6. stevenrey56 says:

    “… North American reader[s]…”. Thank you, I think I’ll pick one up. Do you know of any publications that discuss moldings and their usage in early furniture?

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  7. Paul Murphy says:

    Go, Little Rhodie! Go!
    Sorry Jack; I’m the only Californian in my family, my folks came from Rhode Island. I started my cabinetmaking career building a Townsend Goddard blockfront secretary, so I feel like I have a dog in this fight.

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  8. Warwick says:

    The bureau bookcase pictured looks near new. The mahogany is particularly bright. There do not look to be significant build-ups of dark grime or wear anywhere (even the feet). Perhaps due to a very zealous restoration, or stored in a museum/vault for most of its life?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      The North Americans seem to favour this unrealistic new look to their antique furniture. I suppose it makes the faker’s job more straightforward.

      JP

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    • At some point in its history all the surfaces of the desk were scraped. It was discovered in France and had been there for several generations and it was probably there that the desk was harshly refinished. When I examined the desk in 1999 the interior of the desk section had numerous mahogany shavings resembling those you produce with a metal scraper.

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      • Paul Murphy says:

        I truly believed this desk pictured, was that one you mention. I’m glad to discover I’m right. I remember the news; the auction. What I remember was that the expectations of the possible price for the article were radically upgraded when it was declared to be a Townsend piece. It was a Job Townsend piece, was it not? If I’m way off base here, it won’t be the first time, and likely not the last. Wasn’t it the case that pencil markings could be discerned when the desk was examined in UV light? The desk also had sufficient provenance, so that, considering the pencil marks plus what was known about the desk’s history, the Townsend attribution could be made. Again, if I’m wrong, I apologize.

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        • We did infra-red photography when it was on loan here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1999. There are many pencil inscriptions with wonderful flourishes. It is signed “By Christopher Townsend” in three locations. Two of the signatures could be made out before the auction and definitely helped the price soar to $8,252,500.

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          • Paul Murphy says:

            I always like to keep my promises.
            I was wrong.
            Christopher Townsend. I do remember the auction, and the story associated with it. Thanks for providing the details.

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  9. Pingback: sentimental about wood Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 — Pegs and 'Tails - sentimental about wood

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