Important Americana

Important Americana

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 838. The Important Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Gardner Chippendale Block-and-Shell-Carved and Figured Mahogany Block-Front Chest of Drawers, Attributed to John Townsend (1733-1809), Newport, Rhode Island, Circa 1788.

Property from a Direct Descendant of Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Carr Gardner

The Important Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Gardner Chippendale Block-and-Shell-Carved and Figured Mahogany Block-Front Chest of Drawers, Attributed to John Townsend (1733-1809), Newport, Rhode Island, Circa 1788

Auction Closed

January 23, 04:26 PM GMT


500,000 - 800,000 USD

Lot Details


The Important Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Gardner Chippendale Block-and-Shell-Carved and Figured Mahogany Block-Front Chest of Drawers

Attributed to John Townsend (1733-1809)

Newport, Rhode Island

Circa 1788

Bottoms of foot facing restored and lacking the bottom 1 1/2 inches of the proper right foot facing. 

Height 34 5/8 in. by Width 37 1/4 in. by Depth 20 1/2 in. 

Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Gardner (1739-1806), who m. Sarah Ann Robinson (1746-1777) in 1769, Sarah Fowler (1761-1795) in 1788, and Mary Collins (d. 1806) in 1799;

To his son, William Collins Gardner (1790-1844), who m. Eliza Francis Cazenove (1798-1857), of Alexandria, Virginia;

To their daughter, Anne Eliza Gardner (1819-1885), who m. Cassius Francis Lee (1808-1890);

To their son, Dr. Edmund Jennings Lee (1853-1922), who m. Mary Emma Smith (1852-1942), of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;

To their daughter, Constance Gardner Lee (1880-1961), who m. John Ten Eyck Hillouse (1879-1936) of New York;

To their daughter, Mary Lee Hillhouse (1923-2008) m. William Barclay Lex, Jr. (b. 1924);

Thence by descent through the family.

This block-and-shell carved chest of drawers is a remarkable new discovery of Newport eighteenth century case furniture. It displays hallmarks of the work of John Townsend (1733-1809), the acclaimed Newport cabinetmaker, from whom it was likely commissioned by its original owner, Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Gardner (1739-1806) of Newport. It relates directly to two of John Townsend’s labeled four-drawer block-and-shell chests made in the early 1790s and might have been commissioned by Caleb Gardner in 1788, the year he married his second wife, Sarah Fowler (1761-1795). This chest has descended directly in Lieutenant Colonel Gardner’s family for over 225 years to the current owner and has never been offered for sale until the present time.

Caleb Gardner was born in Newport on January 24, 1739, the son of William Gardner (1711-1774) and his wife, Mary (Carr) (1717-1787). Living with his family near the harbor, Lieutenant Colonel Gardner owned a boat as a boy and was familiar with Naragansett Bay. He became a sea captain as a young man and retired from the sea before the beginning of the American Revolution. In 1775, he raised a company of militiamen and was assigned to Colonel William Richmond’s Regiment, of which he soon became Major. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Regiment on August 19, 1776. In 1778, when the French squadron under Comte d’Estaing was blockaded in a dense fog in the Newport harbor by the British fleet under Admiral Howe, Lieutenant Colonel Gardner rowed out to the ship of the French admiral and offered to guide him out of the harbor to safety. He was said to have steered the French vessel himself and followed by the rest of the French fleet with their lights extinguished. After King Louis XVI heard of Lieutenant Colonel Gardner’s act, he remunerated him through the French Ambassador, the Chevalier de la Luzerne. Throughout the remainder of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Gardner was a trusted advisor of the French officers in Rhode Island and also of General George Washington, his friend and correspondent. After the war, he was appointed French Consul of Newport. He also served as the Warden of Trinity Church and the head of the volunteer fire department of Newport.1

Lieutenant Colonel Gardner married Sarah Ann Robinson (1746-1777) in 1769; Sarah Fowler (mentioned above) in 1788; and Mary Collins (d. 1806), daughter of Governor John Collins, in 1799. He died on December 26, 1806 and was buried in the Common Burying Ground in Newport in a coffin made by Job Townsend. In his will dated December 25, 1806, he made bequests of real estate, buildings and cash to beneficiaries and left the rest of his estate to his daughters, Mary Clarke and Eliza Gardner, and sons, William Gardner and Samuel Gardner.2 His estate inventory dated February 1807 lists possessions totaling $32,545.57, including “1 Bureau” valued at $15 that may correspond to the chest offered here.3 Captain Gardner’s son with Sarah (Fowler), William Collins Gardner (1790-1844), inherited this chest of drawers at his father’s death. He married Eliza Francis Cazenove (1798-1857) and later moved to Alexandria, Virginia. At his death in 1844, he left his estate to his wife Eliza, who died in 1857.4 The chest descended to their daughter Anne Eliza Gardner (1819-1885), who married Cassius Francis Lee (1808-1890), and thence through five more generations of their branch of the family to the present owner.

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). John apprenticed in his father’s shop, probably between about 1747 and the mid-1750s, 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. John Townsend died in 1809, leaving a considerable estate of real estate and possessions. In its beauty and exceptional workmanship, his body of work is remarkable and 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.5

The present chest exhibits hallmarks of John Townsend’s work such as the use of high quality vibrantly figured dense mahogany, refined execution of the cabinetwork, precise evenly spaced dovetailing and exceptional carving of the shells. The florid graphite letters C and D marked sequentially on the drawer backs of the two lower drawers is consistent with John Townsend’s shop practice – the D seen here is in the same hand as the graphite D marking an upper case drawer of a signed high chest made by John Townsend for Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Arnold (1725-1789) and his wife Mary (1725-1762) when they married in 1756.6 The shells are also consistent in design and execution with Townsend’s shop practice. The applied outer convex shells have twelve lobes centering a C-scroll with fifteen flutes and crosshatching below. The central concave shell has eleven plain lobes set within an incised border with scrolled ends and also centering a C-scroll with fifteen flutes and a bed of crosshatching. Townsend refined his shell design over his working career and the shells seen here represent his final iteration.

Nearly identical shells are found on two four-drawer block-and-shell carved chests with his label. One in a private collection is labeled “MADE BY / JOHN TOWNSEND / NEWPORT” and inscribed in ink “Sarah Slocum’s” and “November 20th 1792.7 The other labeled “MADE BY / JOHN TOWNSEND / NEWPORT” and inscribed “179[?]” is in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.8 The two labeled chests and the present chest are virtually identical and represent a common shop tradition. Another four-drawer block-and-shell chest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was made by John Townsend in 1765.9 That chest displays shells of an earlier design with a ribbed concave shell and stop fluted C-scroll centers of the convex and concave shells but is otherwise very closely related to the labeled chests made twenty-seven years later. As a group, these chests demonstrate the longevity and consistency of John Townsend’s designs over his working career as well as his continued commitment to the highest standards of cabinetmaking practice.

Sotheby’s would like to thank Bert Lippincott, Reference Librarian & Genealogist at the Newport Historical Society for his assistance with the research for this lot.

1 J. G. Wilson and J. Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Encyclopedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton, 1891): II, p. 597.

2 Last Will and Testament of Caleb Gardner of Newport, dated December 25, 1806 and proved on January 5, 1807, Newport Probate 4: 352, Newport City Hall, Newport, Rhode Island.

3 Newport Probate 4:354, Newport City Hall, Newport, Rhode Island.

4 Last Will and Testament of William C. Gardner of Alexandria, District of Columbia, dated 1 October 1844, proved at Alexandria 14 January 1845. Newport Probate 14:231, Newport City Hall, Newport, Rhode Island.

5 Morrison Heckscher, John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005): pp. 48-70.

6 See Erik Gronning and Amy Coes, “The Early Work of John Townsend in the Christopher Townsend Shop Tradition,” American Furniture 2013, edited by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover and London: The Chipstone Foundation, 2013): figs. 1 and 5, pp. 2 and 6.

7 See Heckscher, no. 19, pp. 114-7.

8 Accession number G1977-225. See ibid, no. 20, pp. 118-9.

9 Accession number 27.57.1. See ibid, no. 18, pp. 112-4.