Arts and Leisure

The Hidden Treasures of Newport Cabinetmaker John Goddard

Leigh Keno could hardly contain himself on Antique Roadshow in 2015 when a Wisconsin woman brought in a tea table purchased at an estate sale for $100 in 1957. The excitable furniture expert praised “the wonderful wood and great mahogany,” the “wonderful claw ball foot” and the “incised grooves along the edge of the cleat.”  “I feel that this may be by the famous craftsman, a real master craftsman, John Goddard of Newport,” he said.

Though a puppy had chewed one of the claw feet, Keno told the owner the table would sell upwards of $14,000 to $15,000. “Wait ’til my siblings hear this,” she said.

Side chair, Newport, R.I., possibly John Goddard. From the Chazen Museum of Art.

Several years later, Leigh Keno and his brother Leslie found a John Goddard tea table at a Vermont horse-breeding farm. The owners had suffered a devastating fire and didn’t know how they’d pay the electric bill. Sale of the tea table saved the ranch.

The Kenos knew the market for Goddard furniture. In 1990, a mahogany desk made by John Goddard sold at auction for $11 million plus a 10 percent commission. Until then, no other piece of furniture had sold for anything near that price. It cost four times as much as a Louis XVI table that belonged to Marie Antoinette.

A John Goddard table, courtesy National Gallery of Art

A John Goddard table, courtesy National Gallery of Art

John Goddard

Goddard made the $12 million block-and-shell desk for Nicholas Brown, a Providence merchant and member of the prominent Brown family. During the 18th century, the simple but elegant Newport furniture made by the Goddard and Townsend families was a status symbol. Then it fell into obscurity until 20th century scholars woke up to the glories of Newport furniture.

Goddard may have ranked as the best of the Rhode Island craftsmen. He was called the Vincent van Gogh of mahogany. But when he died in 1785, he left his 16 children nothing – nothing but the ability to make fine furniture.

He was born in Dartmouth, Mass., on Jan. 20, 1724, the son of a successful shipwright, Daniel Goddard, and his wife Mary Tripp. Both were Quakers. Soon after John’s birth, his family moved to Newport, where his father built ships that would carry his son’s furniture.

The wealthy seaport of Newport, then the fifth-largest city in America, had a thriving cabinetmaking industry. Newport furniture evolved differently from that of  Boston and Philadelphia. It had less of an English influence, and was characterized by fine workmanship, block fronts, curved shells, bold ball-and-claw feet, spare ornamentation and elegant proportions.

High chest attributed to John Townsend, courtesy National Gallery of Art

High chest attributed to John Townsend, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Goddard and Townsend

Young Goddard was apprenticed to Job Townsend, a cabinetmaker. He then became a freeman in 1745 at age 21 and married Hannah Townsend, Job’s daughter. His brother James married Hannah’s sister. All in all, three generations of Townsends and Goddards intermarried and produced 20 cabinetmakers and some of the best furniture in America.

John Goddard was talented and ambitious, and he wanted to outdo the Townsends. He had 16 children, three more than his former master Job. He also built a house and shop bigger than Job’s.

The Goddard house in Newport

Historians speculate he went out on his own to pursue the higher end of the business. He developed his own style in furniture, described as “a bold and muscular version of the delicate, linear cabriole style associated with his master and the prior generation.”

Neatest Workman in America

His big break was a commission for the newly married John Brown. Goddard made a scalloped tea table, two corner chairs, two clawfoot tables, one tea table and a dressing table. (It now belongs to the John Brown House Museum.)

Pier table, John Goddard, Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Brown’s brothers Nicholas and Moses simply had to have Goddard’s furniture. Goddard didn’t get Moses his furniture fast enough, and Moses wrote him an angry note.

This you was to do, that is, Finish ye Work I wrote for ye first you did after my Brother’s Wife’s furniture were done.

The high point of John Goddard’s career came in the 1760s and early 1770s. He added to his clients Aaron Lopez, Jabez Bowen, Christopher Champlin, James Atkinson and Stephen Hopkins. His reputation spread to wealthy clients in England and the West Indies, commissioned by John Banister.

He may not have had a good head for business. He often delivered his work late, and he had a hard time keeping his workers occupied.

Nicholas Brown made excuses for Goddard when he wrote to a West Indian client who had ordered a set of armchairs. “The Two Armed Chaiar is not Done, we have it now making by the neatest workman in America, was in hoops to have it finished by this, but the Maker being Very Curious in Mahy. The Feet in Imitation of Eagles Claws & all the other parts in the Handsomest manner is the Reason of its not being Done.”

In 1764, Goddard won election to two public offices: viewer of joiners’ lumber and justice of the peace.

British Invasion

Then in 1776, the British occupied Newport. Nearly half the town left, and the population fell to 5,299 from 9,209 in 1770.  The occupation devastated Newport’s commerce, and it did not spare Goddard.

A French squadron arrives to kick the British out of Newport.

He fell on hard times and had to make ready-made furniture to survive.

He may have lost business because of rumors he had Loyalist sympathies. Three of his sons moved to Nova Scotia after the British left. But three others continued the cabinetmaking business in Newport.

Colonial and John Goddard Revival

John Goddard died broke and unknown on July 9, 1785. Decades later, the Colonial Revival – and furniture scholarship – revived his reputation and that of Newport furniture.

Luke Vincent Lockwood, the pioneering furniture scholar in the United States, brought back interest in Newport furniture in 1901 with his book, Colonial Furniture in America. Antiques magazine, which began publication in 1922 furthered interest in fine Newport cabinetry.

The Rhode Island School of Design in 1927 put on the first special exhibition of Rhode Island furniture, which included an essay on John Goddard’s life. The same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought three Newport pieces.

As scholarship continued to identify more Newport furniture, its reputation soared. It reached its zenith in 1990 when a descendant of Nicholas Brown sold Goddard’s block-and-shell desk at auction.

Newport block-and-shell furniture still commands high prices at auction houses.

This story updated in 2022. Image of the Goddard house By The original uploader Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5872189.

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