Lantern clocks

Brian Loomes Antique Clocks

Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks A Bristol Lantern Clock - and Sandwiches

Lantern clocks are incredibly fascinating clocks. To the beginner one looks much like the next, for they all have the same sort of features - same kind of dial, chapter ring, frets, bell, feet, finials ..... In fact when you study the important details, clocks which at first sight look similar to one another can be seen to vary tremendously. Of course, if the clock is signed with a maker's name, then it is hardly rocket science to look up his working dates in a book. But very many lantern clocks are unsigned, and with those you have to rely entirely on the variety of their features. These differences take a bit of getting used to, but the more you look, the more you see, and the individual features are vitally important in determining what we can about the clock. These differences will tell us everything we can expect to learn - the age, the region of manufacture, whether the maker was a skilled, apprentice-trained craftsman or a self-taught clocksmith, with what kind of timekeeping regulator the clock was first made, what alterations were made later in its life, and why, and maybe even when.

A lot of these aspects were completely unstudied a generation ago, other than by a tiny handful of enthusiasts. Little was published about them and most of that was inaccurate or positively misleading. One book changed all that. 'English Lantern Clocks' by George White appeared in 1989, published by the Antique Collectors' Club and now long out of print. It was a long-awaited book. Some of us, myself included, had our names on the order list with the publishers literally for several years before it appeared in print, ordering it just on the mere rumour that it was 'forthcoming'. An invisible queue of potential buyers, ready to buy unseen, formed up mysteriously out of the ether, like the ration-book queues my old mum used to stand in outside the local butcher's shop in the 1940s on the mere whiff of a rumour that there would be sausages for sale 'under the counter'. The book was worth waiting for - that's more than I can say about the sausages! Those of us today who know anything about lantern clocks and who hope to learn more, owe it all to the lead George White gave us. He categorised and analysed them, pointed out regional differences, using his vast knowledge and something like a thousand illustrations. He showed us things that were staring us in the face but that we had previously been unaware of. Before White I doubt if a handful of people knew what a Bristol lantern clock was. Now we all know, and the one featured here typifies many early Bristol features, yet also has a few surprises up its sleeve.

Bristol lantern clocks begin to appear from the 1640s, made along the same principles as those already a generation old in London. Solomon Wasson (believed trained in London) was the first clockmaker in Bristol, free in 1643, but only asingle clock is known by him which is very much in the London style of the day. So this is in effect a London clock possibly made in Bristol, or at the very least sold there. His chapter ring is attached by the normal method used in London, of having four chapter ring 'feet' by which it pins to the dial sheet. This method was not the one used by the Bristol 'school' of lantern clock makers, soon to evolve there.

Chapter rings on Bristol clocks were attached to the clock in a very different way from the standard London method of this time, as used by Solomon Wasson and described above. The chapter rings of Bristol clocks usually have two lower chapter ring feet and a long upper lug, which passes through the dial sheet and holds it trapped into position, the two then held in place by being pinned through the front upright movement bar. This was a method which had sometimes been used in London in very early times, but which had largely fallen from use there by about 1650 - though Jeffrey Bayley of London used this method into the 1640s and perhaps later. This is one respect in which work of the 'Bristol school' was old-fashioned and there are others.

The anonymous 'Bristol' clock pictured here has a quite different and perhaps unique method of fixing the chapter ring to the dial and the dial to the clock, an extreme variant of, and development from, the earlier Bristol method just described. In the instance a projecting lug was cast integral with the chapter ring at the top and bottom centre points, located on its outer edge behind the numbers XII and VI. Each lug passes through a square aperture cut into the top and bottom centre edges of the dial sheet and each lug is then held from above and below by a taper pin to the top and bottom movement plates, trapping the dial in position at the same time. I have never seen any other lantern clock with a chapter ring having such lugs, nor with the dial held by this method.

Thomas Browne, son of a Bristol blacksmith, is the second known Bristol clockmaker, also free there in that same year, 1643. Only one clock is known by him bearing his name, but four others are known which are attributed to him but are unsigned. All five look very similar to each other, though one is a miniature. Browne's clocks, though of the same period, are very different from the one known by Solomon Wasson, for Browne began a true, individualistic Bristol style, which continued for many years both in Bristol itself and in the regions around, principally North Somerset and Wiltshire. His dial sheets were made of copper rather than brass, a feature which was probably unique to him in lantern clocks, though a few longcase clocks are known later with copper dials. Each of Browne's lantern clocks has a virtually-identical dial centre design which can be seen to have remained popular later as the obvious basis from which other designs developed.

Full view of an unsigned Bristol clock of the 1680s. View of the movement from the left
1. Full view of an unsigned Bristol clock of the 1680s.
Click for closer view.
2. View of the movement from the left showing the upper and lower chapter ring lugs which hold the dial in place. The decorated hammer counter is also visible.
Click for closer view.

Very few Bristol clocks are known from this early period (1640s-1650s) and a most of them were unsigned. A good many Bristol lantern clocks made a generation later (1670s-1680s) were also unsigned - as were even most of those attributed to Thomas Browne. The only way we can identify them is by noticing what we now recognise as 'Bristol' features, most of which were begun by Thomas Browne and were, I believe, first pointed out by George White. This design used by the engraver of Thomas Browne's clocks appears to be developed from a design used in a lantern clock by John Snow of Salisbury dated 1630 (described by White as the earliest known English provincial lantern clock). A dial design having some similar features was used on a lantern clock by his brother, Nicholas Snow of Salisbury, in 1636. So Browne appears to have taken his dial design from Salisbury, even though we could say that design was almost twenty years out of date when he used it. His work was out of date in other respects too, such as his chapter ring fastening and perhaps his integral pillars (though integral pillars were still being used in London at this time by a very few makers such as Jeffrey Bayley). Perhaps it would be kinder to say that Browne used a dial design still popular twenty years after it was first used. It presumably implies that Browne was familiar with work by the Snows and might suggest he had some connection with Salisbury. Or was he just using the same engraver as the Snows had used, an engraver who had a preferred pattern and was still producing the same pattern twenty years or more after he engraved the first John Snow clock dial? Thomas Browne died in 1680. But the essence of his dial design lived on and can be seen in the dial of the unsigned clock illustrated here, probably made about the time of Browne's death.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of Bristol lantern clocks, and those of the surrounding region of the West Country, is that they almost always have the pillars continuous with the finial and foot in a single, one-piece casting. I call these 'integral' pillars, the finial and foot being integral in the pillar casting. In most other regions, and particularly in London, the finials and feet screwed on as separate fittings, with the clock plates being 'sandwiched' between them. This was the regular standard practice with those made in London and in most other places. They had their sandwiched plates sitting flush all round with the finial/foot base, so that they could be neatly filed off for a virtually 'invisible' fit. When well done you can't see the filling in the sandwich, and it can almost appear to be a solid casting. When the fit of the plates is especially poor, this is usually because the clock has been dismantled, perhaps for cleaning, and re-assembled again with the wrong finial and/or foot to each corner.

Not all Bristol clocks had integral pillars, but the majority did, taking the lead from the type used by Thomas Browne, who seems to have been the first to use this method there and whose example was followed by most of those who succeeded him in the 'Bristol school'. The exceptions tend to be those Bristol makers who came from elsewhere, such as from London. I recently discovered that Solomon Wasson was trained in London (as George White had guessed all along from his clockmaking style), and this explains why he used the London 'sandwich' method.

Bristol was not the first place where lantern clock makers used the integral pillar. They were used from the earliest times in France, and it may even be from there that British clockmakers in London took the principle. Integral pillars were used earlier than in Bristol, by the Snow family of Salisbury by 1630. They were also used in London, mostly at an early period (1620s-1640s), where it was practised by very few makers - for example Jeffrey Bayley of London seems to have always used the integral pillar. As Salisbury is much closer to Bristol than London is, the usual inference is that this Bristol practice came through Salisbury influence, which might seem to be confirmed by the fact that we do not know any Bristol lantern clocks as early as those by the Salisbury group. It has even been suggested that Thomas Browne trained in Salisbury, since his dial designs also have echoes of some of the Salisbury ones.

But the method of attaching the integral pillars to the top and bottom plates was tackled differently in Bristol from the method used in Salisbury. John Snow of Salisbury, his brother Nicholas Snow of Salisbury, and believed relative Martin Snow one time of Wells in Somerset (Martin working much later in the 1660s) , all used a system of integral pillar but somewhat different from that used in Bristol. In the Snow clocks the top and bottom plates were set into a cutout in the solid pillar in such a way that the cutout showed through to the front on one half of the base of the finial and foot. This Salisbury method was not as neat as that used in the Bristol region and in London. The Salisbury method looked like half a London 'sandwich' as part of the joint was visible from the front. If Bristol makers did take this idea from Salisbury, then they refined it into a neater form. On the other hand they may have taken it directly from the London practice of those few makers there who used integral pillars there, as its appearance is identical to London ones of this type. In both integral pillar systems the plates sat fractionally back from the pillar front leaving the pillars standing slightly proud. If Salisbury copied London one wonders why they did not copy the neater 'London' form of pillar-to-plate fitting. So when Thomas Browne began the Bristol integral pillar fashion he may have been following the lead in Salisbury or that used occasionally in London.

Many early (1650s and later) Bristol lantern clocks were originally made with alarmwork. Many of the later seventeenth century ones from Bristol and North Somerset also had alarmwork. In almost all of these clocks the alarmwork has later been removed, or perhaps we should say is missing. Sometimes it has later been replaced again by a restorer, but surviving original alarmwork is exceptionally rare in Bristol lantern clocks of the seventeenth century. In fact so common is the absence of alarmwork which the clock clearly provides for, that one point of view suggests that in some of these clocks it was perhaps never installed in the first place - in other words that the clocks were built with the necessary apertures for this facility, but that alarmwork would only be added as an 'extra' if the client wanted it.

Typical Bristol alarmwork
3. Typical Bristol alarmwork, in this case original, placed inside the right-hand side of the iron backplate.
Click for closer view.

It is obvious at a glance whether a clock originally had alarmwork by the presence of the alarm setting disc in the dial centre, or, in the event of that disc having been removed, then by the presence of a blank (unengraved) zone in the central space it once covered. Even if they no longer have alarmwork today, when they did have it these Bristol lantern clocks had their alarmwork designed to be positioned differently from similar clocks made elsewhere, namely inside the iron backplate to the lower right-hand side, where there was just enough spare space to accept it. Even when the alarmwork has been removed the tell-tale holes will survive in the backplate, where it was originally attached. In the event of the backplate having been removed too, then two tell-tale holes will still survive in the base plate towards the back on the right, where the drive rope or chain once hung down.

Several other features help to identify lantern clocks of the distinctive Bristol school. Bristol lantern clocks sometimes have long bell straps which extend further down than most and pin into the belly of the finial rather than its upper tip, which latter was usual elsewhere. Bell straps of Bristol lantern clocks often have the centre set out in a pierced trefoil pattern. Bristol lantern clocks often had their hands made of cast brass, though this is not exclusive to Bristol as so too did lantern clocks in some other regions of the West Country. Brass hands however were not normally used in clocks made outside this region. An oddity of the strikework of these Bristol region clocks is that they often have a protruding flange to one side on the rear movement bars to take the strike fly. Bristol engraved dial patterns often derive from Thomas Browne's original, with typically two roses, positioned one each at IX and III. Some, though not all, Bristol lantern clocks had brickwork engraving in the dial corners. Some, though not all, Bristol lantern clocks had side doors engraved with an arcaded design. Side doors however were often lost or replaced later, and even old doors cannot be relied on to be original to the particular clock.

Bristol lantern clocks after about 1660 frequently have the lion and unicorn pattern of fret, holding a shield between them, a pattern also very popular in the West Country at large. The lion and unicorn are in fact 'supporters' of the Royal Arms. They became paired as supporters with the reign of James I of England in 1603, who combined the English lion with the Scottish unicorn to symbolise union between the two countries. The shield the supporters hold on this pattern of fret are sometimes blank and are sometimes engraved with a simplified version of the Royal coat of arms and/or the Royal motto 'Dieu et mon Droit'. It is believed this pattern of fret was introduced to celebrate loyalty to King Charles II on his restoration to the throne in 1660 and as a revolt against Oliver Cromwell's order to have all representations of the Royal Arms destroyed in 1650. Many lantern clocks made both at earlier periods and in other regions may have this pattern of fret today as obvious replacements. This may be because this Royalist following was so strong after the Restoration that many older (i.e. pre-1660) lantern clocks, which of course were almost all made under Cromwell's later-despised regime, had their original frets removed and replaced with this pattern in the years following the Restoration. This applies both to lantern clocks made in the West Country and sometimes those made elsewhere too, such as London ones, where this 'West Country' fret would otherwise seem incongruous.

Early Bristol lantern clocks were built, like lantern clocks everywhere, with balance wheel control, though these were pretty well always modified later to some form of pendulum. The pendulum was first introduced into clockwork in London in 1658, but for a good few years still the trusted balance wheel survived in production in lantern clocks, perhaps because it was reliable and easy-going in the sense of not being fussy about levels, even though the duration of a balance wheel clock is only about twelve hours against the normal thirty-hours of a verge pendulum version. We also know from old records that balance wheel clocks were also cheaper to make than pendulum versions. The oldest dated lantern clock with a pendulum from the Bristol region was made by John Westover, who probably worked close by in North Somerset and is dated 1675. The oldest known dated lantern clock signed at Bristol is the only recorded lantern clock by John Clarke, which is dated 1679. Clarke was the next Bristol maker in succession. He was apprenticed to Solomon Wasson (mentioned above) in 1643, freed in 1650. This clock carries Thomas Browne's engraved dial centre design. An unusual feature of Bristol lantern clocks with a verge pendulum is that the back cock supporting the verge staff was made of a flat piece of brass bent into the required shape - most other makers would use a purpose-made casting.

This unsigned clock has pillars, feet and finials identical to those of John Clarke's only known lantern clock dated 1679. The engraved numbers on the alarm disc are also identical. The engraved centre design is closer to that of John Clarke than any other, though based on Browne's original. This, together with its other features, helps us date this clock to about 1680 or shortly after.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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