Thomas Spencer

In 2007 a desk-and-bookcase with a history of having been owned by the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene (Fig.3) was given to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Figs. 1, 2). At the time, Ronald T. Labaco, the curator of decorative arts at the museum, an expert in late twentieth-century design, asked my opinion about the desk-and-bookcase, particularly whether it was made in Newport, Rhode Island. I told him that it was certainly evocative of Newport, but that the plainness of the interior and the simplicity of the carved shell on the prospect door were not as robust as Newport work. Since Greene, before his legendary career in the American Revolution, had lived in Kent County, Rhode Island—on the west side of Narragansett Bay, first in Warwick and then in Coventry—it seemed possible that the desk-and-bookcase was made there. However, no furniture from the area had yet been identified, and so the investigation came to a temporary halt.

It was revived the following year when Katherine Farnham, a former curator at the High Museum, who had played a key role in seeing that early American furniture was included in the collection, and her husband, Clayton, who had a keen interest in Greene as the architect and leader of the Continental Army’s southern campaign, were alerted by her sister to a lecture to be presented by Dennis M. Conrad, a contributing editor of the thirteen-volume Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Katherine contacted Conrad, who directed her to a list of Greene’s expenses from the 1770s, which included the June 12, 1775, purchase of a “Mehogane Desk & Book Case” from Thomas Spencer (Fig. 4).

With that tantalizing clue in hand, Katherine called me and asked if I had ever heard of Thomas Spencer in my role as project director of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery—which comprises information about more than two thousand woodworkers culled from the land, probate, and court records of all the towns in Rhode Island between about 1640 and 1800. I put down the phone and searched the database, discovering that a Thomas Spencer was indeed working as a shop joiner in East Greenwich in 1773. East Greenwich neighbors the towns of Warwick and Coventry where Greene had lived. While it was only circumstantial evidence, Katherine and I both realized that in style and materials the High’s desk-and-bookcase corresponded perfectly with this information.

Born on April 23, 1752, in East Greenwich, Spencer came from a long line of woodworkers. He was the youngest child of Thomas Spencer (1717–1753), a shipwright, yeoman, cordwainer, and (at the time of his death) high sheriff of Kent County, and his wife Margaret Goddard Spencer (1718–1765).1 His paternal grandfather, John Spencer (1693—1774), was a carpenter; his maternal grandfather was Daniel Goddard (1697–1764), a housewright and shipwright. His uncle, John Goddard (1724–1785), was the renowned Newport cabinetmaker.

Spencer’s father died when he was only a year old. His mother sold the family’s property in East Greenwich in 1755 and moved back to Newport, where she supported her children as a shopkeeper, selling dry goods and provisions such as sugar and tea.2 Thomas and his older brother, Daniel, who also became a shop joiner, were almost certainly trained in Newport. Thomas’s apprenticeship probably took place between 1765 when he was fourteen and 1772 when he reached his majority. In 1773 he was described as a “shop joiner” when he bought a small plot in East Greenwich, “where he now dwells.”3 There were five or so shop joiners living in East Greenwich at the time Thomas was trained, so it is conceivable that his apprenticeship took place there. But given the similarity of his desk-and-bookcase to the work of Newport cabinetmakers the likelihood seems remote.4

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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