The first of the four galleries devoted exclusively to John Townsend's work showcases furniture in the cabriole style—chairs, tables, and high chests supported on tall, gracefully carved cabriole legs. Featured in this room are Townsend's earliest work, a drop-leaf dining table, signed and dated 1756 (promised gift of Philip Holzer to the Metropolitan Museum), a scroll-pedimented highboy from 1759 (Yale University Art Gallery), and an exceptional mahogany card table of 1762 (Mr. Eric Noah). In these works, Townsend's skill as a carver of foliage and of claw-and-ball feet was already fully developed.
In the next gallery, case furniture by Townsend in his famous "block-and-shell" style is displayed. The fronts of these works are divided into three sections, with a concave central element flanked by convex ones. All of Townsend's signed pieces in this style, with dates ranging from 1765 to 1792, are assembled here, showing how the design that he had perfected in the mid-1760s was carried on with little change into the 1790s. On view is a superb fall-front desk featuring his largest and most magnificent shells (Bequest of Stanley Paul Sax, Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State).
The third gallery represents Townsend's reaction in the late 1780s to the Revolutionary War years, and his first step toward Neoclassical furniture designs. He specialized in card tables and Pembroke tables (those with two drop leaves), with straight, stop-fluted legs and a spare, angular look. A table of 1786–93 shows the stunning effect that Townsend achieved by coupling restrained design with the exceptional beauty of mahogany's grain (The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum).
The fourth gallery shows tables with straight tapered legs, ornamented with lightwood inlays, Townsend's interpretation of the new Neoclassical style. A signed and dated (1796) example of the most important new furniture form, the expandable dining or banquet table, dominates the center of the room (Newport Restoration Foundation).
The exhibition ends with two galleries in which Townsend's work is compared with that of his contemporaries. In the first, a chest and a table, both by Townsend, are shown upside down; next to them are a chest and a table by other makers, shown the same way, allowing visitors to compare construction. In the last gallery, examples of some of John Townsend's favorite forms are shown next to similar pieces by competitors like John Goddard and Edmund Townsend, enabling the viewer to determine what is unique about John Townsend's style. This gallery features the Museum's recently acquired work by Thomas Townsend.
In addition to furniture, the exhibition includes eighteenth-century maps and plans or views of Newport, portraits of the people who commissioned furniture, and documents, silver, and porcelain that have descended in the Townsend family.