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Tuesday, 05 February 2013 01:08

Hunter House and the Point: A Community of Consumers and Craftsmen in Eighteenth-Century Newport, Rhode Island


Fig. 1: Hunter House, Newport, R.I., ca. 1748, expanded ca. 1760.

The Preservation Society of Newport County.
Located on the water, the Nichols-Wanton-Hunter House, today known simply as Hunter House, bears the name of its last and longest private owners, Senator William Hunter and his family. Its earliest residents participated in the colony’s government and trade and were part of the community of consumers and craftsmen living on Easton’s Point. Today visitors can tour the house and explore Newport’s eighteenth-century material culture in the context of its landscape, neighborhood, architecture, interiors, and objects.

Prominently situated on the shore of Newport Harbor in the historic Easton’s Point neighborhood, Hunter House (circa 1748) (Fig. 1) exhibits the work of craftsmen practicing in eighteenth-century Newport, Rhode Island. The collection demonstrates the quality and breadth of Rhode Island-made furniture, silver, and pewter, among other decorative and fine arts. The northeast parlor of the house and its interior woodwork, rich in classical details, serves as a backdrop for the collection. Here, locally made wares appear in their appropriate domestic context: within an eighteenth-century structure, its original interiors, and in constellation with the objects used alongside them. Newport’s distinct design tradition is evidenced in the decorative arts and architecture of the house, which reveal the variety of artisans working in close proximity to one another and to Hunter House in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Fig. 2: View of Newport, unidentified artist, ca. 1740. Oil on panel, 33¾ x 67¼ x 2 inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County, loan from Alletta Morris Cooper. Photograph, John Corbett.
This early view of Newport depicts the bustling port, its public buildings and private houses. Many of the city’s craftsmen lived on Easton’s Point, the area on the left side of the panel. This overmantel painting was originally installed in the Phillips House, which was located on Mill Street.

Newport (Fig. 2), one of the colonies’ five largest and wealthiest ports before the American Revolution, had a bustling harbor. Easton’s Point, also called the Point, was a thriving commercial center that housed many prominent citizens (Fig. 3). At the heart of the city and with easy access to the water, merchants and tradesmen built warehouses, workshops, wharves, stores, and fine mansions like Hunter House. The concentration of money and the variety of players—politicians, traders, shop owners, and craftsmen—meant a constant exchange of currency, goods, and ideas on the local level. But the port also participated in the vast Atlantic trading networks. The businessmen and artisans on the Point adapted such outside influences as English designs to suit the needs and tastes of their location. Material and cultural exchanges were essential to the flowering of decorative arts in Newport. These interactions are exhibited through the architecture and collections of Hunter House and provide a framework to address the distinct style that emerged.

Fig. 3: A Plan for the Town of Newport in Rhode Island, Charles Blaskowitz (ca. 1743–1823), cartographer; William Faden (1749–1836), engraver and publisher, September 1, 1777, London. Engraving, 13⅛ x 14¼ inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County.

Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Easton’s Point, the landmass extending from the left side of the map, was a densely populated area bordering Newport Harbor. Hunter House and its wharf, at the time the longest under private ownership, are denoted on the map by “Wanton’s Wh” at the bottom left.

Hunter House was built by Deputy Governor Jonathan Nichols Jr., who purchased the land, wharf, and associated buildings in 1748. Its next owner, Colonel Joseph Wanton Jr., took possession of the property in 1756. Wanton served as deputy governor on two occasions and was involved in coastal shipping and collecting port duties. He resided in the house until his loyalist sympathies during the American Revolution forced him to leave the city in 1778. Wanton’s tenure coincided with the apex of Newport’s wealth and success as a port. His expansion of Hunter House resulted in an impressive Georgian mansion with two bays and a central hall.
Fig. 4: Northeast parlor, Hunter House. Photograph, John Corbett.
The northeast parlor of Hunter House features ornate architectural details including paneling, bolection molding, double cornices, marbleized double pilasters, and built-in cabinets. The paneling and woodwork are simplified and repeated in the room directly above the parlor.

Fig. 5: Detail, northeast parlor double cornices and overlaid pilasters. Photograph, John Corbett. Fig. 6: Detail, northeast parlor cabinet. Photograph, John Corbett.

The cabinets in the northeast parlor contain the same careful carving and decorative treatments seen in the rest of the room. The molded shelves display Newport-made and -used silver, Chinese export porcelain, and other imported tablewares.
Fig. 7: Marble slab table, attributed to John Goddard (1724–1785), ca. 1755, Newport, R.I. Mahogany with maple, marble, 29 x 45 x 21¾ inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County. Photograph, Gavin Ashworth.

This table likely resembles the two “marble side boards” included in Jonathan Nichols’s 1756 estate inventory for Hunter House. Goddard’s version of the form exemplifies the bold proportions and excellent craftsmanship of Newport decorative arts and is a highlight of the loan exhibition at the Winter Antiques Show.

Fig. 8: Detail, marble slab table foot. Photograph, Gavin Ashworth.
Fig. 9: Dressing table, Benjamin Baker (ca. 1735–1822), ca. 1760, Newport, R.I. Mahogany with chestnut and white pine, 31 x 35 x 20 inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County. Photograph, Gavin Ashworth.

This dressing table descended from the Hunter and Malbone families of Newport. Like many colonial craftsmen, Baker did custom work and made furniture for the export trade. His account book reveals that he also received contract work from local tradesmen like clockmaker Thomas Claggett. (See Dennis Andrew Carr, “The Account Book of Benjamin Baker,” in American Furniture, ed. by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004), 44-89.)

The northeast parlor of Hunter House is a masterwork of carving and a rare survival for grand, high style houses in Newport (Fig. 4). Within the city’s rich collection of eighteenth-century domestic structures, the parlor is exceptional. One of five fully paneled rooms in the house, the northeast parlor is the most elaborate space, located just off the street-side entrance. It contains painted pine paneling with bolection moldings, double cornices, overlaid Corinthian pilasters (Fig. 5), and built-in cabinets with carved shell details, cherub heads, and acanthus leaves (Fig. 6). The strong projections and recessions in the paneling and carving evoke the highly molded surfaces of baroque interiors. The cabinets, designed to secure and display valuable goods, feature dramatically molded shelves, which curve sharply in and out, imbuing the space with depth and drama. The woodwork is further highlighted with decorative surface treatments. Marbleized finishes appear on the pilasters and on the shelves and columns inside the cabinets. The architectural forms are freely adapted to fill the room, prioritizing overall effect rather than strict mathematical symmetry. The northeast parlor demonstrates the flexibility of classical molding and ornamentation to fit the needs of the location. The interior architecture of Hunter House serves as a backdrop for the fine and decorative arts of Newport, many of which display the same proficient variation of classical form and ornament.

Fig. 10: Detail, dressing table inscription. Photograph, Gavin Ashworth.

The front apron of the dressing table bears a chalk inscription on the inside, which reads, “-enjamin Baker/ he mad it” (sic).

The tendency toward exaggerated proportions seen in the bold woodwork of the northeast parlor is also demonstrated in Newport-made furniture. A marble slab table in the center hall, attributed to John Goddard, circa 1755, has a deeply carved serpentine skirt and cabriole legs (Figs. 7 and 8). It functions as a practical, decorative, and architectural piece, exemplifying the craftsman’s distinctive approach to eighteenth-century design. The table is characteristic of Newport in the boldness of its proportions evidenced in the rails, knees, and sculpturally carved feet. John Goddard was one of the many artisans who lived and worked blocks away from Colonel Wanton and Hunter House. Connected by marriage to the Townsend family of furniture makers, Goddard joined a large familial network of craftsmen making goods for local clients and for the export trade.

Fig. 11: Three porringers. Left to right: Thomas Melville (1764–1796), ca. 1793–1796; David Melville (1755–1793) or Thomas Melville (1764–1796), ca. 1776–1796; Thomas Melville (1764–1796), ca.1793–1796. Newport, R.I. Pewter, 1⅝ x 77⁄16 x 51⁄16 inches; 1 ¼ x 51⁄16 x 4¼ inches; 1⅝ x 7¾ x 51⁄16 inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County.

The two plain-handled porringers bear touchmarks used by David Melville on the top: The left has an anchor surrounded by the partially struck words “NE[WPORT/ IN GOD W]E HOPE.” The right, a scallop shell with “MADE IN NEWPORT/ BY D :MELVIL” (sic), and above the punched hole “N.w ENGLA” partially struck. Both porringer handles come from the same mold, which was modified with the addition of “TM” on the bracket when Thomas Melville, David’s brother, inherited the molds. The center porringer has a flowered handle and bears the same anchor touchmark that appears on the solid handle. The terms “plain” and “flowered” appear in the inventory of David Melville’s pewter shop (Reproduced in Laughlin, 160).

Benjamin Baker also worked on the Point and is represented at Hunter House by a dressing table made circa 1760 (Figs. 9 and 10). Using material as ornament, Baker added visual interest by contrasting the mahogany of the case with darker mahogany for the drawers. Like the slab-top table, this dressing table was made in accordance with local tastes. The shape of its undulating skirt, deeply carved scallop shell, and thin top with molded edge all point toward its manufacture in Newport.

Local aesthetics are also evident in smaller objects of everyday life. Pewter tablewares provided an opportunity for Newport craftsmen to demonstrate unique approaches to standardized forms. The Melville family of pewterers—David Melville, his brothers Thomas and Samuel, and his sons, Thomas and Andrew—worked in Newport after the American Revolution. The collection at Hunter House contains a number of Melville pieces including four porringers with solid or plain handles (Fig. 11). Handles of this form seem to have been made in Newport almost exclusively.
Fig. 12: Detail, plate touchmark, David Melville (1755–1793), ca. 1776–1793, Newport, R.I. Pewter, 9¾ inches. The Preservation Society of Newport County.
The Melville family of pewterers used a variety of marks that often included references to the wares’ manufacture in Newport. Some touchmarks incorporate anchors or, as in this case, a shell over thirteen stars representing the thirteen colonies.
While out of fashion by the mid-eighteenth century in England, porringers remained popular in the colonies and were made in particularly large quantities in Rhode Island.1 Porringer handles were an opportunity for individualization. However, the molds necessary for casting pewter were expensive, preventing many pewterers from producing a variety of forms and designs. Often craftsmen received or purchased the molds used. In the case of the plain-handled porringers, David Melville made a unique handle design and then passed it on to the next generation. His brothers and later his sons inherited and continued to use his molds and punches after his death. While pewterers, silversmiths, and clockmakers traditionally marked their work; the consistency with which the Melville artisans also noted the location of manufacture in Newport, may indicate the wares’ distribution outside the city and colony (Fig. 12). The objects in Hunter House, like those by Goddard, Baker, and the Melvilles, evidence the close geographic and stylistic proximity of craftsmen working in and around the Point.

Hunter House, a National Historic Landmark, has played an important role in Newport’s preservation movement. The Preservation Society of Newport County was formed in 1945 to save the structure and to preserve the city’s architecture in situ. Among the many dedicated people who worked on the restoration project, Ralph E. Carpenter Jr. had a distinctive role in bringing Newport’s decorative arts to public and scholarly attention. His groundbreaking exhibition, The Arts and Crafts of Newport Rhode Island, 1640-1820, was installed at Hunter House in 1953. Now, sixty years later, objects from Hunter House will again be part of a loan exhibition: at the Winter Antiques Show in New York City they will be shared with an even wider audience and celebrate Newport’s contribution to eighteenth-century design in America.

Alice Dickinson is the decorative arts fellow at the Preservation Society of Newport County and a recent graduate from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

1. Ledlie Irwin Laughlin. Pewter in America: Its Makers and Their Marks. 2nd ed., Vols. I and II (Barre, Mass: Barre Publishers, 1971), 86.