Collecting Antique Clocks An Interesting Country Clock
Collectors of clocks come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of tastes and preferences. In terms of longcase clocks, there is a limit not only to the total budget anyone may have to spend (all longcase clocks are costly today), but to the number of longcases one can house. Those really bitten by the bug tend in their earliest years to buy eagerly and without real discernment. As the finances and available space dwindle, the collector then tends to become much more selective, to pick and choose more carefully. It is then that he really begins to study the subject in a more serious way. What is it about a clock that will appeal most to a collector at that stage ? The clock illustrated here will answer many of those questions.
Genuineness is the first essential. If the clock is not genuine, then it can hold little or none of the pleasure given by the genuine article - and there are plenty of non-genuine clocks around today, not necessarily outright fakes (though there are those too), but clocks which have been re-housed in different cases, or have been re-fitted with different movements. It goes without saying that a collector wants to buy a genuine clock with its original movement and case. But what else? What makes one clock more desirable and another less so?
The clock pictured here is a relatively ordinary eight-day clock by a virtually unknown maker named John Perkin, who worked at Altofts. The only fact we know about him is that he was there in 1723 when he took on an apprentice named John Bruce - another little-known clockmaker who worked later at York in about 1730. Perkin is thought to have been still working in the mid eighteenth century. Altofts is a hamlet beside the River Calder in the parish of Normanton, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, a former coal mining area. In the 1720s there were probably only a handful of houses there. He cannot have been a very prolific clockmaker. I have come across only two or three clocks by this maker in over thirty-five years and I am based only about thirty miles away from Altofts. So any appeal this clock may have is not based on the fame of this little-known and insignificant maker. The clock is interesting for what it is, not because of who made it.
The clock dates by its style from about 1720, maybe even a little earlier. This is a time when clockmaking was only just getting off the ground in provincial England, with very few makers yet practising the craft apart from those in the larger cities. Rural makers are still very thin on the ground, and the exciting aspect of such early rural work is that these men were trying to sell clocks for the first time in an area which had previously managed pretty well without them, and so they had to try that much harder to make a good product. They had to do more, where city makers with a captive clientele could get away with less. They had to give better value, put in more work, produce a higher 'quality' item, but at a lower price.
The workmanship John Perkin was capable of can be seen in the dial and movement - pictured here unrestored, exactly as the clock came out of auction. The engraving is excellent, the dial centre beautifully engraved with a floral pattern onto a matted ground and a similar engraved design fills the centre of the sub-dial in the arch. The well-made steel hands are original, but have lost their bluing through polishing. The dial is twelve inches wide, the smallest size we are likely to see in provincial eighteenth century dials, and small is good for a collector because it makes the clock slim.
The earliest clocks had square dials, but about 1710 this new shape, called an arched dial, began to appear in the provinces. This is an 'early' arched dial, amongst the first ever made, a fleeting style seen only for a very few years before it became the regular type of arched dial that we normally see - and which is much more everyday and far less exciting for a collector. We can tell that by several features of style which are more normally seen on square dials, but for a very few years were carried forward into the first arched dials. The ringed winding holes and ringed seconds hole, the corner spandrel of twin cherubs holding a large crown, the use of half-quarter markers positioned mid-way between each quarter-hour (i.e. at seven and a half minutes past). The half-quarter was for the benefit of those not yet used to two-handed clocks and for whom the new-fangled minute hand was confusing and who thought of time not in minutes but in terms of quarter-hour units. When the minute hand reached the half-quarter marker, as in plate 1, it was half way towards quarter past, though we are now used to recognising this as seven and a half minutes past.
The earliest arched dials used the newly available space in the arch for a purpose - later on it was just 'there' and clockmakers used it merely for decoration or to carry a name-plate. Initially the arch actually did something, and this one carries a moon dial, and when an early arch has a moon it is usually of this particular type, which is one which delights collectors for its style. This is called a penny moon (the aperture being about the size of an old penny). A shaped disc passes behind the open moon hole in order to show the moon's shape as in the sky, while the hand meantime passes around the calibrated circle to give the moon's date, here showing the twelfth lunar day of the month. A penny moon is desirable in its own right, but an arched one is better still.
The movement picture shows a beautifully made clock, with fine ring-turned pillars, and the moonwork drive gear is exceptionally well finished in iron. This was a clock made by a man who knew what he was doing, and who put in great effort, where many got away with less.
But what about the bizarre case? It is made of oak. The base is a modern replacement, probably done because the original had rotted down from years of standing on damp stone-flagged floors. Most country clocks of this extreme age have had their bases replaced. We would prefer that not to be so, but we have to accept sheer wear and tear. It is an odd style of case, a bit ungainly about the hood, an example of primitive rustic styling, made by a local carpenter or joiner, as simply as possible to keep the price down.
An intriguing aspect is that the weight pulleys are here made of wood, turned beautifully on a lathe and are in an amazingly good state of preservation. Such pulleys are almost always of brass, bought from the brassfounder. But making them in wood was cheaper, helped keep the price down, and could be done on the spot. We sometimes see wooden ones to carry the ropes of thirty-hour clocks, but very rarely this type to take eight-day gutlines. Wooden pulleys are prone to chipping, but these are close to perfect.
The case also has aspects which tell us this is amongst the earliest arched dial clocks. The trunk door has what is called a lenticle glass, a bull's eye glass window, which lets the pendulum be seen swinging. A lenticle glass is normally a feature of square dial clocks, but here is an example of square-dial styling carrying forward into the earliest arched dials.
The case is a little strange in style, especially in the hood. There are two reasons for this. Firstly the carpenter is here trying to invent a styling for the hood, which takes account of the new arch of the dial. Square dials of rural clocks had a flat top; arched dials ... an arched top? The casemaker is experimenting to find a satisfactory way to make the hood top match the dial shape. Later casemakers with longer experience could do this a little more gracefully, but we have seen that countless times to the point of risking being repetitively boring. This is new, if quirky, and that is interesting.
But it is also clear from certain constructional inadequacies that the carpenter who made this case has probably not made a clock case before. He set off by making the body, then a hood to fit onto it, BUT, having made the body unduly slender, he then found the dial forces the hood to be unduly wide for it and, moreover, he has made the hood too shallow front to back to allow room for the pillars. He got round the problem by modifying his design in fitting protruding corner squares above each pillar. The result is that the corner squares of the hood sit too widely on the top of the trunk, having an unnatural and unexpected overhang at each side. He just plain got it wrong, from inexperience.
I have seen this sort of error before, though the actual details vary clock by clock. It is something in which collectors delight, because they are looking at one of the very rarest examples one can come across, where the longcase clock is so new to the locality that the local carpenter is not yet familiar with its case construction. This is a high-quality clock with a penny moon, an example of the earliest arched dials, in its original case which is an example of the very beginning of longcase clock making, and no collector can ask for more than that.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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