An article by the late John Fiske
Ipswich is home to two groundbreaking masterworks of early eighteenth century America, a paneled wall and a pulpit. Both were made by Abraham Knowlton (1699- 1751), a woodworker who is less well known than he deserves to be.
William Knowlton, born in England in 1615, was the first of the family to settle in Ipswich. He arrived in 1641, seven years after the town was founded. He was the father of Thomas, grandfather of Nathaniel and great grandfather of Abraham Knowlton, who was born in 1699 to Nathaniel and Deborah Jewett Knowlton, the fifth of seven children. Their house lot on the corner of Summer St. and County St. was first granted to Humphrey Bradstreet, and in 1646 he sold the house and land to Deacon Thomas Knowlton, shoemaker. Deacon Thomas sold his house, barn and two acres of land to his son Nathaniel Knowlton on Dec. 6, 1688.
Nathaniel sold half the homestead and half an acre to his son, Abraham Knowlton, May 5, 1725, just when Abraham was establishing his woodworking business in town. Abraham built the house that now stands at 16 County Street on the lot that he bought from his father.
Knowlton’s earliest known work is the banisters in his own house on County Street, built c. 1725. He turned virtually identical baluster forms for the nearby Wainwright-Treadwell House in 1726, which he also fitted with Georgian paneling. In 1727-8, he repeated his now signature balusters on the staircase of the Reverend Nathaniel Rogers house, but here he gave the banisters the most elaborate, most rococo newel post that he had yet produced. A year later, in 1728, he moved across High Street and produced the baluster turnings yet again, this time for Captain Richard Rogers, brother of Nathaniel.
It was in the Captain Richard Rogers house that Knowlton produced the masterwork of his early period: A shell cupboard set at one end of a Georgian paneled wall whose opposite end contained a fine doorway that balanced the cupboard with perfect symmetry. The raised panels throughout the wall and doors were set in molded frames that were, in turn, set into a mortise-and-tenoned framework. Flanking the fireplace were the newest things to come out of classical times, wooden copies of marble, stopfluted pilasters. The tops of the door and the cupboard were arched with central keystones, in wood, of course, not marble. Nobody in Ipswich had ever seen a wall paneled like that.
As a woodworker, Abraham Knowlton was what today we would call “an early adopter.” He was unusually aware of the newest styles and clearly wished to be among the first to work in them. The paneled wall and cupboard, the masterwork of his early period that he made when he was still in his 20s, was the first “Georgian” work that Ipswich had ever seen: His shell cupboard was the first in town; and the fluted pilasters with elaborate capitals were the first signs of classical architecture to be seen in Ipswich.
What we don’t know is what model or design he used to develop his eye for Georgian design – and it’s hard to imagine a more Georgian eye than his. There is no record of him visiting England, where the Georgian period was just getting under way: There is no record of an English-trained woodworker who immigrated to Ipswich bringing designs with him. That paneled wall in the Captain Richard Rogers House cannot have sprung from Knowlton’s imagination alone: There must be a precedent somewhere, but we don’t know where. What we can speculate, however, is that Knowlton’s deep seated desire to innovate led him to seize upon the trace of Georgian style that he must have come across.
Nobody in Ipswich had ever seen a wall paneled like the one that Abraham Knowlton built for the Captain Richard Rogers house. I am fortunate enough to have spent many a cheerful hour sipping and chatting in front of that paneled wall, but getting to the masterwork of Knowlton’s later life was another story altogether. I had to climb a narrow ladder, squeeze through a hole not much larger than a cat door and finally emerge into a cramped space at one end of the nave of the First Church, just a few houses down North Main Street from the Captain Richard Rogers House. Here, crammed in, difficult to photograph, unused though readily visible from the nave, is the pulpit and sounding board that many believe to be the most innovative masterpiece of its time.
The First Church wanted the best possible pulpit, and for Knowlton, the best meant the newest. So, with no fanfare, he made the first bombé form in America. His pulpit, built between 1749 and 1751, predates by at least two years the first American example of bombé furniture, the desk and bookcase made in 1753 by Benjamin Frothingham of Charleston, Mass., just 25 miles south of Ipswich. Knowlton designed the pulpit to be set into a screen with raised panels, and he must have decided that it would harmonize better with its setting if the pulpit, too, had raised panels. The visual geometry of the swell and the curved channels culminating in a pointed arch could only have been produced by the eye, and the hand, of a major artist. The only known precedent for a bombé pulpit is a design in a book published in London in 1740, The City and Country Builder’s and Workmen’s..
There’s a story behind this pulpit. In 1746, 68 members of the First Church became followers of the Great Awakening and broke away to form a new church, for which they built a new building on the South Green. In December of 1747, the remaining parishioners of the First Church decided to build a new meeting house (as churches were still called) partly because their current one was getting old and decrepit, but partly, we assume, to be a clearly visible symbol of their superiority over the breakaway church. The fourth First Church – i.e. the fourth structure built on this spot to house the congregation of the First Church, had to be magnificent. Only the most magnificent pulpit could achieve the effect the congregation wanted, and only Abraham Knowlton had the ability to make it. There’s an unfortunate irony here, for Abraham Knowlton was actually one of the 68 defectors. But clearly, business pre-empted religious disagreements, and he accepted the commission.
The pulpit stood tall in the fourth First Church for almost exactly a century. Then, in 1846, the fourth church was razed to make way for the fifth. The pulpit did not fit the interior style of the mid-nineteenth-century church so, before the new bell tower was boarded in, the pulpit and sounding board were hauled up into it for storage. There they remained unnoticed for another century. Then in 1965 the fifth First Church was stuck by lightning and burned to the ground, but during the fire, the bell tower became accessible and some quick-thinking (and brave) townsfolk climbed in and saved the pulpit.
Susan S. Nelson of Ipswich wrote “Captain Abraham Knowlton, Joiner, and the Seminal Woodworkers of Ipswich, Massachusetts,” in Peter Barnes (Ed.), Rural New England Furniture: People, Place and Production, Boston University, 1998. Susan tells us that the probate inventory of Knowlton’s workshop in 1751 included “six oval tables, seven frames for oval tables, two kitchen table frames, and no fewer than three desks-and-bookcases, one of them a mahogany one valued at £20. Additionally, a “Duble Case for drawers,” or what we would call a chest-on-chest… was valued at more than £21.” His workshop was that of a busy and successful man: it contained four joiners’ benches, a turning lathe, and a full complement of joining and carving tools. Clearly, many an Ipswich house contained furniture made by Abraham Knowlton.
So there we have it: Two largely unseen masterworks and a body of unrecognized furniture. Abraham Knowlton may never join the Goddards, Samuel McIntire and Thomas Dennis in the pantheon of Massachusetts cabinetmakers, but he had an eye for the next big thing, an imagination that took him off the beaten path, and a technical skill good enough to turn his visions into reality. Yes, here in Ipswich, we’re pretty proud of Abraham Knowlton.