Lantern clocks bought and sold
Collecting Antique Clocks A lantern clock hood
The great majority of lantern clocks were made to hang on the wall by means of a hoop at the top and two spurs or spikes at the base, the latter being simply spacers to hold the clock vertical against the wall. A few have no sign of ever having had a hoop or spurs, most such originating in the West Country round the Bristol area. We can only assume these sat on a bracket or shelf. Those that today sit on shelves are usually on a relatively modern bracket, mostly made by some handy owner within the last century or so. A few miniature arched dial examples of the mid eighteenth century do sit on their original shelves or hoods, but not, as far as I am aware, traditional examples dating from the seventeenth century. Some shelves are old but I have never seen a lantern clock of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century on a shelf that was the age of the clock it carried - till I saw the extraordinary example pictured here.
The lantern clock hood pictured here is unique. It is made entirely of English oak and is believed to date from the late seventeenth century, my guess is about 1680 but perhaps a little earlier, as is suggested by the history it carried with it. The hood was bought at auction many years ago by the last owner. At that time it contained a lantern clock by that very well-known maker of lantern clocks, Nicholas Coxeter of London, 'Captain Coxeter' as he was known from the time he spent in Cromwell's army. Unfortunately the Coxeter clock had had its original movement replaced by a spring-driven one, as happened to very many such clocks when they were considered obsolete - because of the inaccurate timekeeping and their need to be wound every eight to twelve hours. The thought was that a spring-driven 'engine' reduced winding to once a week and offered reasonable timekeeping. This was true but such a conversion also destroyed the originality of the clock as an antiquity.
The owner decided to send the clock away to a long-established and well-respected restorer he knew to have him build a replica weight-driven movement of the type the clock originally had. Such an action would not restore the clock to its former glory but it was the best compromise he thought he could live with. The clock was sent halfway across the land, time passed, months became years and the veteran restorer had not yet even started work on the movement. Eventually, after some years of waiting on the part of the owner, the venerated restorer became so veteran that he died of old age, and with him was lost all trace of the clock. Nobody knew what had become of it and it was lost for ever. The owner, now suffering the effect tragic drama has on all of us in being wiser but sadder (and in his case much older), kept the hood, thinking one day to buy a balance-wheel lantern clock to put in it. But he never did. Even so he kept the empty hood as a curiosity for many years.
When he first bought the hood, at that time containing its spring-conversion Nicholas Coxeter clock, it had been coated by some previous owner in a dark brown varnish. It was that kind of near-black floor stain, which we used to paint on the floor in the days before we could afford a carpet to cover the shamefully-naked, echoing floorboards, and which, in today's minimalist society, is having a miraculous new lease of life. He therefore stripped away this hideous coating very painstakingly back to bare wood, a task that took many hours and incidentally removed all traces of colour and patina from the wood. When he first got it an ancient piece of paper was pasted on the backboard, a piece of history written in ink with a goose-quill pen. Unfortunately the paper was not robust enough to survive the paint stripping, but the owner had the good sense to copy out the wording, which read:
John Ensor of Tamworth, referred to in the text, invented a special type of lathe for turning the type of double-twisted columns (double barleysugars, correctly known as double-bine columns) seen on this hood. He also claimed his lathe would turn three or four spiral twists at once. In Robert Plott's book 'The Natural History of Staffordshire' published in 1686 is an engraving showing an example. Furniture Historian Adam Bowett pictures this in his book 'English Furniture, 1660-1714' and quotes that Ensor claimed to be able to turn twisted columns "not only of two, but of 3 or 4 twists, or more if he pleaseth; and that in so little time, that he can turn 20 of these, while one is cut or raspt ....". In fact the hood not only incorporates double-bine twist turned pillars (set inside the scroll-carved cushion mould) but also exceptionally unusual four-bine turnings at the base of the pillars.
Adam Bowett lives not far from me and I had the pleasure of examining this hood with him, after which he concluded that the double-bine columns inset at the front and sides within the extraordinary cusp-carved cushion moulding at the top of the hood were in fact carved and not turned. So R.H., well-informed though he was, was mistaken in 1824 in associating the hood double-bine columns with John Ensor's invention.
Nicholas Coxeter was one of the most prolific lantern clock makers of the period. He was born about 1625, was apprenticed in London through the Clockmakers' Company to John Pennock (from Yorkshire) till March 1646/47, and was married in 1648. In the 1650s he was a Captain in the Yellow Regiment of Cromwell's 'New Model Army', being previously a Lieutenant. He worked initially in Lothbury, later in Long Lane, and was three times Master of the Clockmakers' Company, the last time being for the year 1677 /78. But by 1678 he was very ill, too ill to attend, and on the 19th of November 1679, 'being sick and weak', he made his will. I have a copy on my desk. In fact he died in the winter of 1679, his will being proved on the 12th February 1680. The lantern clock of his which was originally in this hood could have been made at any time between 1648 and 1679, but that does not necessarily mean the hood was made between these dates.
The hood is very bizarre in style, suggesting provincial work. Adam determined that the oak was English oak, and, as London woodworkers at this period were using imported Baltic oak, this added to the suggestion that the hood was made in the provinces. The pillars on the hood do not make any attempt at 'supporting' the top, as is the true purpose of a pillar (in architecture anyway), and have no true capitals and bases. In that respect they resemble other pillars I have seen on two or three very early and very rare Lancashire lantern clock cases of the late seventeenth century. These are of the type I refer to as 'hanging' pillars, hanging because they do not join up at the top and bottom. Other stylistic features and the altogether busy, highly-decorative nature of the hood carvings and turnings echoed certain architectural features sometimes seen in the north-west, which Adam described as arising from an enthusiastic but uninformed attitude of mind that believes 'more is better'. This further suggested the hood may have been made in north west England, perhaps Lancashire, to house a Coxeter clock bought from London. My best estimate of the age of the hood is that it was made in the 1680s.
The hood is a freestanding item designed to contain its clock by hanging from the wall. It is not the hood of a standing case in the manner of a prototype longcase. Examination shows that it never sat on top of a case. It has a hole in the upper backboard from which it might be hung, but also two slots under its base of wedge-shaped profile, suggesting it slid onto an iron wall bracket for a strong support. As such it is the only lantern clock hood I have ever come across.
The base has the appropriate hole cut through to take the rope(s) for the weights, which might have been one or two depending whether the clock had a pendulum control or a balance wheel. Knowing Coxeter's dates I am inclined to think it was a balance wheel example though it could feasibly have been a verge pendulum. A glance at the underside shows that it never carried any sort of fitments that would enable it to sit on top of a standing case. But a second base has been added long ago inside, above and nailed down to, the first one. This is also made of oak but of a very different oak from that of the main construction. It is drilled with four foot-holes to prevent the clock from sliding when in position. It can be deduced that this second base was fitted to enable the clock to sit safely after its conversion to a spring movement - it had already been converted by 1824. The smaller slotted hole in this secondary baseboard was presumably to accept a pendulum bob that extended below the clock's base. A rope-driven lantern clock tends to be unable to slide about very far on its board by virtue of the restraint caused by the ropes themselves as they hang under tension and limit any degree of slip of the feet. A spring-driven one has no such built-in restraints, and hence the safety foot holes. The second internal floor removed any chance of the clock sliding partway through the much larger rope opening in the original base.
One suggestion of Adam Bowett's was that an attempt be made through a contact of his to identify and date the oak by dendrochronology, the study of tree ring growths. It was a slim chance that the database would include a match, as this hood was almost certainly made using the wood of a single tree. This was attempted, but with no success. No match was found. It would have been very satisfying to have been able to establish the year that tree was felled. Instead we have to rely on our knowledge and interpretation of stylistics to try to determine the age and area of origin of this unique specimen. And the written history and stylistics point to Lancashire and a date just about the time of Nicholas Coxeter's death.
Originally published in Clocks Magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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