John Townsend

Inducted: 1998
Born: 1733
Died: 1809

John Townsend (1733-1809) was one of at least nineteen family members in an extended three-generation Quaker family of Townsends and Goddards who crafted the famed Newport style of American furniture from 1740 to 1840. Newport was the destination of many cargoes of fine mahogany woods from Honduras and Santo Domingo. Wealth created by Caribbean shipping made it possible for Jewish and Quaker merchants to own fine homes and furnish them with desks, tables, chairs, and clock cases, all crafted and carved in a distinctive Townsend-Goddard style, emblazoned with shell carvings reflective of Newport’s maritime and oceanic heritage.

John Townsend was born in Newport in 1733, the fourth child of Christopher Townsend Sr. and Patience Easton, a descendant of one of Newport’s founders. Job Townsend Sr. was his uncle, and Hannah Townsend, the wife of John Goddard, was his cousin. Townsend served as an apprentice to his father in the art of cabinetmaking and opened his own shop when he was about twenty years old. His first notable piece was a dining table crafted in 1756. Active in civic affairs, he served for a period as Newport’s town treasurer and as its surveyor of highways. In 1767, he married Philadelphia Feke, the daughter of Robert Feke, America’s first important native-born portrait painter.

Townsend’s work was interrupted by the British occupation of Newport from December 1776 to October 1779; in 1777, he was briefly confined to a prison ship in Newport harbor. After the war, his furniture output was prolific, so he expanded his shop to include six parcels of land at Easton’s Point in the northwest part of Newport along the waterfront. He appears to have been the most financially successful member of his clan, and he left a substantial estate at the time of his death in 1809.

According to furniture historian Gerald W. R. Ward, Townsend’s furniture was made in the Newport version of the English baroque and rococo styles from approximately 1756 until the mid-1790s and then in the neoclassical style until Townsend’s death. “Of consistently high quality,” states Ward, “Townsend’s pre-neoclassical cabinetwork represents a distinctly American design statement that is bold and sculptural and that in its baroque simplicity and strength stands apart from the more heavily ornamental, asymmetrical English rococo taste. Townsend and his fellow craftsmen in Newport thus created a style of cabinetmaking that constitutes an American contribution to the history of design.” Appropriately, their finely crafted works have found their way into this country’s most significant private collections and major public museums. Many Townsend-Goddard pieces have graced the halls and reception rooms of the U.S. State Department in Washington, where the best of America is on view to impress the diplomats of the world. Unlike John Goddard, however, John Townsend signed or dated some thirty-five elegant pieces between 1756 and 1800, assuring that his fine craftsmanship would be not only prized but recognized.

John Townsend was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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