Lantern clocks

Brian Loomes Antique Clocks

Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks A Lantern Clock in a Wooden Case with Corbels

A newly-discovered lantern clock from the 1680s in its original oak standing case of a particularly distinctive type offers an opportunity for a re-examination of such clocks.

Lantern clocks, any genuine weight-driven lantern clocks, are very uncommon items these days, and increasingly so in this last three or four years. They are amongst the most exciting of all clocks because of their sheer age and the near miraculous fact that, being obsolete for such a length of time, any survive at all. Evidence from old inventories and from paintings of household interiors of the time suggest that the earliest lantern clocks (that is those controlled by balance wheel, as all were before the arrival of the pendulum in 1658) were hung as high up on the wall as possible, in order to gain longer running time. The longer the rope or chain, the longer the duration, which at best might be sixteen hours, and more often twelve. Twice a day winding was normal, sometimes three times a day. This was probably not the problem then that we might see it as today. It was the price you had to pay to have a clock. The choice was quite simple. Have one of these newfangled household clocks and wind it twice a day, or don't have one.

The hallway or staircase seems to have been a favourite place to hang lantern clocks, partly because there one could probably gain more height for the weight drop, and also because the loud bell, positioned in such a centralised area, could be heard all around the house without being intrusive, particularly to those in bed. Today we more usually hang them at a little above head height, so that we can see them more closely and better enjoy their beauty. This is an unnaturally low position and accounts for the reason we have to wind some of them every eight hours. Old paintings which show such clocks picture them at what might first seem a ridiculously high position up close to the ceiling, for the benefit of the longest possible duration between windings. In such a position it might seem difficult to read the time, but then as time-keeping on early balance wheel (pre-1660) clocks could vary by as much as a quarter of an hour a day, fast or slow, the position of the hand was not all important.

newly discovered lantern clock
1. A newly-discovered lantern clock dating from the late 1680s signed simply by monogram BH. It is believed to have been made in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Click for closer view.

Yes, I know we are going to have some collectors who swear they have run balance wheel clocks with much greater precision than that, and so have I. But in those cases we are talking of enthusiasts who run the clocks in optimum conditions, and fiddle about with fanatical care and attention and have a quartz clock to check it by. In the rough and tumble of life in a pre-1660 household with inadequate heating, straw on the floor and a frost-covered sundial outside to check it by, time-keeping was a different story. More important than time-keeping, no doubt, was that such a clock kept on reminding you of the (approximate) hour by its bell, or, in the case of an alarm version, that it got you (or your servants) out of bed early enough in the morning. The very fact that balance wheel clocks were still produced as much as half a century after the better-regulatable pendulum versions were known, in itself is evidence that precision time-keeping was not uppermost in the minds of the maker or purchaser.

Some lantern clocks did not hang on the wall, but were housed in their own wooden cases. If lantern clocks are rare survivors today, lantern clocks in their original wooden cases are exceptionally rare items, most especially those from the earliest years of their making, let us say from the late seventeenth century. If I count up all those I have owned, seen in the flesh and seen illustrated in books or auction catalogues over the last forty years, I doubt they would come to a total of twenty. So all lantern clocks in wooden cases are pretty scarce things - considerably scarcer than conventional clocks by even the most prestigious makers, such as Tompion and the Knibbs - who, of course, also made lantern clocks in their more downmarket moments.

Some of these cased lantern clocks date from after the second quarter of the eighteenth century, and these are by that time somewhat anachronistic. Though still scarce items, they are certainly far less exciting to the collector than earlier ones. These mid-to-late eighteenth-century examples were old-fashioned when they were made, and whilst owning one today might be a pleasure to a collector because of the sheer scarcity of it, such a clock is not in the same world as a cased example from the seventeenth century. It is those which date from the late seventeenth or very early eighteenth century which are the ones that are a real delight for all kinds of reasons, not least that they are amongst the rarest of all clocks surviving in Britain. In fact by virtue of their humble origins it is little short of a miracle that any such clocks survive at all, as these primitive clocks, in even more primitive cases, have long been outmoded and have generations ago been replaced in most houses with items which worked more efficiently, kept better time, and were housed in more sophisticated and better-looking cases. Most people we know would have long ago consigned lantern clocks to the scrap man and their cases to the bonfire.

But even amongst the earliest of these cased lantern clocks which have survived, there are a few, a very few, which have an intriguing feature of style that seems to me to define their origins more clearly than others. I find this a little difficult to describe, as I am not an architect, but the tops of the hoods of these cases I have in mind finish with a top-mould supported by corbels. The clock illustrated here is of this type. They must be amongst the earliest of all lantern clock cases, though such a thing is very difficult to establish exactly because of the difficulty in dating many lantern clocks with any degree of exactitude. This applies especially to unsigned lantern clocks, which many are.

dial centre design movement of the BH clock
2. Beautiful but naïve engraved design of the dial centre based on tulip-like flowers. Click for closer view. 3. The movement of the BH clock unrestored for many years and showing the flourishing shape to the hammer spring stop. Click for closer view.

We know that clocks we would recognise as being very similar to what became the standard English lantern clock were made from about the year 1600. The first lantern clocks in cases probably preceded what we now regard as the true longcase clock. This is something we could argue about all day, as the evidence for or against is probably lacking or inconclusive. But we can assume that some lantern clocks had cases before the introduction of the pendulum (and therefore the longcase clock) in 1660, even if we know of no example today which is quite that old. And amongst those cased lantern clocks which do survive, surely the earliest style, if not in fact the oldest clocks, must be those with the corbel tops.

The point is that there is evidence surviving (just the odd thread or two) that some of the earliest lantern clocks were housed in 'cases', if we can call them that, which were actually a wall fixture, built into and matching the wall panelling and looking rather like a raised panelled column. This way the clocks could be positioned as high as possible in the room, up near the ceiling, giving the longest possible running time.

I know of only one example existing today of a lantern clock 'case' still built into the wall panelling, and this clock is pictured in 'English Lantern Clocks' by George White, the only sensible book on the subject. It was made for Sir Thomas Putt of Combe House, Gittisham, Devon about the year 1666. The top of the 'case' matches the top of the wall panelling forming a heavy frieze, and looks fine in situ but would seem to have far too heavy an overhang if it were a free-standing case. This particular 'case' does not in fact have corbelling at the top, because the wall panelling does not.

Most of these early lantern clock cases (and indeed some early longcase clock cases too) have exceptionally shallow bases. It has often been assumed that such cases had their bases cut short, as often happened with later longcase clock cases, because of floor damage such as rot. In fact when we look at the half dozen or so known examples of the second and third quarters of the seventeenth century, all of them have shallow very bases, in fact little more than a high plinth. This must surely be because they were planned this way, to match the skirting boards which form the base of almost all wall panelling!

Only a handful of lantern clock cases survive which date between 1650 and 1700 apart from the inbuilt one at Combe House just mentioned. Some of these now contain no clock at all, and some contain clocks which are known not to be original to the case. These surviving examples include: a miniature lantern clock by Joseph Knibb in a pine case; a now empty walnut case built c.1660 to match other furniture associated with Samuel Pepys; a lantern clock of about 1675 by William Holloway of Stroud in its original oak case; an example I call the 'Leicestershire' case because it was discovered there (illustrated in my book 'Brass Dial Clocks'), being a lantern clock case modified soon after making to house a longcase clock, which it still houses; the lantern clock in its original oak case by Henry Webster of Aughton, Lancs; the lantern clock bearing the monogram BH pictured here in its original oak case. I make this a total of seven, including that at Combe House. Of course there must be others unknown to me.

Of these examples just listed, only four have this corbel top I described earlier. They are:- the one by William Holloway, that by Henry Webster, the 'Leicestershire' case, and that by the unidentified 'BH', the subject of this article.

oak case of the BH clock hood of the BH clock
4. The oak case of the BH lantern clock would originally have had a much taller lower half. The door has inset panels, exactly like the drawer-front of a Charles II chest of drawers. Click for closer view. 5. Detail of the (removable) hood of the BH clock. What appears to be two joined planks at each side is in fact a single plank with a worked mould down its length, just for fancy. Click for closer view.

These corbel-top cases were quite possibly intended to be fixed to the wall rather like a protruding pillar, in such a way that the top cornice, including the corbel section, was flush with and ran into the cornice moulding of the room. This would explain why the cases of some of these clocks have backs which are much newer than the rest - because they originally had no backs, the back being formed by the wall itself, and only needing a true backboard to be made at such time as the 'case' was removed from the wall to become free standing. The Leicestershire case, that of the BH clock and that of Henry Webster are all thought to have originally had a higher base section.

We have no way of identifying the maker of the recently-discovered BH clock. There are some half dozen or so known clockmakers of the period whose initials were BH - I spent some time trying to identify such makers. They include Benjamin Hill of London working 1640-1660s; Benjamin Harris of London working 1677-1704; Benjamin Harvey apprenticed in London in 1662; Benjamin Heath apprenticed in London in 1661; Bernard Heylings or Hillings from Antwerp apprenticed in London in 1652. None of these seem to me to be likely makers of this clock, which has nothing about it of London styling.

The clock was located in Bradford, Yorkshire, where it is thought to have been 'sleeping' for many years. The bell strap is made of iron with a japanned finish. Iron straps on lantern clocks are unusual and often associated with north-west England (Yorkshire and Lancashire). Iron bell straps on Lancashire lantern clocks were different from this one but were japanned. This clock has an iron strap which has negative end fittings, whereby each corner end of the strap is filed into a curve to clip around the stem of the corner finial - an unusual system, which is known to have been used by some makers in the Halifax area (as well as a few others elsewhere). The clock was made with original anchor escapement, which is a little bit unusual for such a relatively early clock, but is known to have been used this early by some northern makers. The chapter ring is riveted in place, something done by a number of makers, but especially so in the North. My guess overall is that it was made in the old West Riding of Yorkshire around Bradford–Halifax way.

This newly-discovered BH clock is a little treasure, exhibiting many features we can now begin to associate with this very first period of lantern clock casemaking, a period which is virtually unstudied. And the clock came to light just by chance quite recently after a house 'clearance'. The new owner's wife refused to have 'that ugly old thing' in the house! This re-affirms what I have said before that spectacularly-exciting new discoveries still turn up, and the beginner has just as much chance of finding them as the most experienced collector in the land - provided he keeps looking.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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