In 1990, a mahogany desk made by Newport cabinetmaker 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 was four times the price tag for a Louis XVI table that belonged to Marie Antoinette.
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 been 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.
John Goddard 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 was born, his family moved to Newport, where his father built ships that would carry his son’s furniture.
The wealthy seaport of Newport was then the fifth-largest city in America with 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.
Young Goddard was apprenticed to Job Townsend, a cabinetmaker. He 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 built a house and shop that was bigger than Job’s.
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’s now in the John Brown House Museum.)
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 1760 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 been a good businessman. He was often late and had a hard time keeping his workers occupied.
Nicholas Brown wrote to a West Indian client who had ordered a set of Goddard 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 he was elected to two public offices: a viewer of joiners’ lumber and a justice of the peace.
In 1776, the British occupied Newport. Nearly half the town left, as the population fell to 5,299 from 9,209 in 1770. The occupation devastated Newport’s commerce. Goddard was not spared.
He fell on hard times and had to make ready-made furniture to survive.
He may have lost business because of rumors he was a Loyalist. Three of his sons moved to Nova Scotia after the British left; three others continued the cabinetmaking business in Newport.
John Goddard died broke on July 9, 1785. He was forgotten until 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, revived interest in Newport furniture in 1901 with his book, Colonial Furniture in America. Interest in Newport furniture was furthered by Antiques magazine, which began publication in January 1922.
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.