Lot 4230
  • 4230

Very Fine and Rare Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Slant-Front Desk, attributed to John or Jonathan Townsend, Newport, Rhode Island, circa 1770

40,000 - 60,000 USD
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  • Mahogany, Tulip Poplar and Chestnut
  • Height 42 in. by Width 43 3/4 in. by Depth 23 in.
indistinct chalk inscription to the underside of the third long drawer.


Ginsburg & Levy, New York.


Secondary woods include tulip poplar and chestnut. Pulls replaced. Patch to top at latch. Very minor lip repairs. Scratches to sliding interior lid to well.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Newport desks with a flat front, of the form represented here, are extremely rare. This one exhibits exceptional workmanship, a refined design, supreme carving, high quality materials and broad proportions. Adding to its significance is its attribution to John Townsend (1733-1809), the acclaimed Newport cabinetmaker. The basis for this attribution rests in the similarities of its design and construction with that of a slant-front desk that descended in the Townsend family made by John Townsend for his daughter, Mary Townsend Brinley. That desk is currently in the collection of the Newport Restoration Foundation and illustrated in Morrison Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), no. 30, pp. 136-7. It is virtually identical to this one in its overall design, dimensions, interior, shell carving, profile of the ogee feet, and foot construction. The same interior is found on a block-front fall-front desk in the collection of the U.S. Department of State with Townsend's label and dated 1765.1

John Townsend was born in Newport in 1733, the son of Christopher Townsend (1701-1787), a co-founder of the family dynasty of cabinetmakers, and his wife Patience (Easton). He apprenticed in his father's shop, probably between about 1747 and 1754, and established his own business soon after completing his training. His highly accomplished working career spanned nearly fifty years during which time he was elected one of a dozen surveyors of highways in 1765 and 1767 and was briefly imprisoned in 1777 with 61 other Newport citizens for refusing to sign a pledge of allegiance to the King. He later served as Town Treasurer between 1780 or 81 and 1784. At age 34, he married Philadelphia Feke (1743-1802) and they had six children, two daughters and four sons. Three of his sons – John, Solomon, and Christopher – worked in the family cabinet shop and carried on the tradition. In 1809, John Townsend died a man of considerable wealth, leaving in his son Charles "My Mahogany Desk which I have now in use" and his son Solomon "A Mahogany Desk I had made for him."2 His remarkable body of work, in its beauty and extremely fine craftsmanship, reveals a methodical and meticulous master craftsman who favored fully developed forms, precision of execution, and a preference for labor-intensive methods of construction. His signed and labeled work consists of elaborate and costly forms, all of which are carefully inscribed and usually dated. The pieces in the group are of the highest quality and exhibit consistency in design and construction. All document Townsend's legacy as a supreme American artisan.3

Townsend's flat-fronted case furniture consisted principally of desks like the present example with four graduated thumbnail-edged drawers, interiors of a standard Newport design, and ogee bracket feet. Typical of Townsend's work, this desk displays a prospect door shell carved with consummate skill with flowing lobes and including his distinctive central C-scroll with rounded top edge in relief enclosing crisply carved petals contained within an incised border. Heckscher notes that about a dozen other desks and one desk-and-bookcase survive of consistent design that can be linked to Townsend because of that distinctive attribute. Included among these is one initialed "IT" and a desk with a partial Townsend label both sold in these rooms, Important Americana, January 23, 2010, sale 8608, lot 474 and Important Americana, January 20-23, 2005, sale 8053, lot 1193 respectively. The desk-and-bookcase descended from its original owner, Jonathan Nichols (1700-1774), and is currently in a private collection.4 A desk with a similar interior sold at Northeast Auctions, March 1-2, 2003, lot 470. Lastly a Townsend desk very closely related to the currently offered lot sold at Sotheby's, New York, The Collection of Susan and Mark Laracy: Distinguished American Furniture and Folk Art, January 20, 2007, sale 8280, lot 224 sold for $264,000.

1 Morrison Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), p. 108, no. 17. Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport, (Tenafly, NJ: MMI Americana Press, 1984), p. 171, Figure 3.94.
2 Heckscher, p. 136.
3 Heckscher, pp. 48-70.
4 Heckscher, pp. 134-5, no. 29.