Collecting Antique Clocks To Clean or not to Clean
It is common sense that dirt and grime, rust and corrosion are just about the worst enemies of machines, clocks included - perhaps only exceeded by amateur restorers with a big hammer. For a machine to perform its intended functions it needs to be lubricated and cleaned from time to time. Even I know that, who have barely the skill to lift the bonnet of a car engine. With reference to old clocks a specialised breed of engineers has evolved over many years, who have developed techniques to clean them, overhaul them, and set them into working order, whilst preserving as much as possible of the original machine.
For years past these skilled technicians have normally called themselves clock restorers, and further back just clock menders, but a more fashionable title of 'conservator' has recently been coined. You could be forgiven for thinking that a conservator was someone who saved whales, but not so. It is thought that this is a term intended to imply that they preserve rather than replace, but it seems to me to also imply that mere 'restorers' don't. Oddly enough many of the old time restorers may have been conservators all along without ever having known it.
Conservation must surely be applauded. In the distant past the thinking was very different, and any clock maker or mender would do his best to make a stubborn clock function, often with the help of a big hammer and with the view that its antiquity was its greatest problem. There were only two kinds of clocks - those that would run and keep some sort of respectable time, and those that went into the dustbin. If the movement was deemed to be in a bad state, the best thing was often thought to be to scrap it and fit a different movement from some other old clock - any would do, so long as it would fit.
A member of the famous nineteenth-century Vulliamy family of exceptionally-talented clockmakers in London knew the level of his own skills. If a client happened to bring along a clock which he wanted repaired, he would have no qualms about doing the job by scrapping the old original movement and fitting a new one of his own making, for he believed he could make a far 'better' one. The fact that the old clock was made over a century earlier by someone named Tompion had no bearing, as Vulliamy knew he could make a far better one! And he did! And signed it with pride.
I don't have a lot of patience with those who give themselves lofty titles. A fashion grew up a few years ago whereby some clock dealers began to style themselves 'horologists', including a few new to the game, who had just jumped onto that particular band wagon and sought to give themselves more kudos by sounding their own trumpets. This puts me in mind of an old lament by a clock dealer of the past, whom one or two of us just about remember. This was old John Begg of Edinburgh, who complained: 'trade was driven into the hands of those who were not trained, so that there is scarcely a cloth shop or hardware shop that does not deal in watches, who know no more about a watch than a cow does of a new-coined shilling'. He wrote it in 1807 but nothing changes.
I am not a restorer myself, which is why I am able to take so completely an impartial view of such things. In fact, as someone incapable of knocking a nail into wood, I can see the topic from a quite unprejudiced standpoint. I did once take an eight-day longcase movement apart, and, using all my skill and devotion, managed to re-assemble it more economically than the original clockmaker. I had a few parts left over, and it still didn't work. That taught me not to meddle with the supernatural. One of the best old clock restorers I knew, no longer with us unfortunately, learned his skills by taking tanks apart in the Western desert in 1942, but he didn't call himself a 'conservator'.
Anyway neither restorers nor conservators can see any merit in dirt and grime, and one of their aims is to run a clean clock. As mere purveyors of old clocks, we dealers hold such men in awe and generally take their advice. But recently some collectors, and even some dealers, have taken a different view. When we buy a clock we like to see a bit of grime, better still, a lot of grime. If nothing else, it gives that feeling of confidence that nobody has tampered with it in recent years, that no twentieth-century Vulliamy has been let loose on it.
If we want to have the clock up and running, then it would be perverse not to clean it first. We might well have it cleaned if it were a mere two-hundred-year-old longcase, as that is no great age for such a stalwart clock. But what if it were a three-hundred-year-old clock, or even one over three hundred and fifty years old, such as some lantern clocks? Do we really intend to run such a clock as a balance-wheel lantern clock day after day? After all, its parts do have a finite life, and there will come a time when pinions are beyond saving. Such clocks have been modified over the years anyway, and therefore not all the parts are as old as the clock's date of making. But some are, and surely if we are to 'conserve' these, then perhaps the best policy is not to have the clock running.
Maybe we could run such a clock when visiting 'horologists' come to call, just to show that it will do it. But do we really need to tell the time by a clock of such antiquity, for surely we have other clocks in the house, which will do that? And do we really want to wind a balance-wheel lantern clock two or three times every day? Owners of the past certainly didn't, which is why they converted them all to longer duration between windings.
I was fortunate once to own two lantern clocks, both of which came from the workshops of Robert Harvey of London, a little-known clockmaker, who was in fact the first native British maker of domestic clocks, and who died in 1615. One of those clocks had its escapement in an incomplete state, presumably removed at some distant time past with the intention of upgrading the timekeeping - though the job was left undone. I was urged by one of the few people around today, who have a serious knowledge of these clocks, not to attempt to replace or restore the escapement. He pointed out that 'the knowledge does not exist' as to just what form that original escapement took, even though we could deduce that it would have been a balance wheel. I left the clock as it was, content to have it incomplete, which I too felt was better than to perhaps restore it incorrectly.
This is increasingly the view taken by owners of such very ancient clocks - leave them uncleaned, unmended and don't run them. I was taken some years ago to see an eccentric old collector, now long dead, who owned a dozen or so lantern clocks. He kept each of them rolled up in a towel and stored them all in a kitchen cupboard, lying on their sides like so many bottles in a wine rack. It was unusual practice, but this was his way to conserve them. He took them out now and then, when interested parties called in, much as a stamp collector occasionally gets his stamps out, just to survey their beauty.
Today some collectors, though perhaps not many as yet, keep their clocks in exactly the same condition they bought them in - that is not cleaned and not running. I know one collector, who has done this for thirty years or more. I used to think he was a bit of an oddball. He is in fact, but I can now begin to see his point of view.
When we buy a dirty old lantern clock, or a sleepy thirty-hour longcase at auction, we delight in seeing the untouched condition. Conversely we are very wary when we see a recently-cleaned clock at auction. Why is it for sale, if it's just been cleaned? Perhaps it has some terrible problem that 'conservators' have failed to resolve and the owner is getting rid of it in despair. Perhaps half of it is newly-made, the look of the brass cleverly disguised by some of those 'pickling' treatments we have heard conservators tell of but that we can't recognise.
Many people are frightened of lantern clocks, a type which has almost always had some alteration over the years to improve timekeeping - or perhaps even been Vulliamised. In untouched condition such clocks are far more credible. In fact collectors who have their clocks cleaned, and then pop off this mortal coil with the result that their clocks end up at auction, may have done themselves a disservice in having them 'conserved', because recently cleaned-up clocks may bring a lesser price at auction than the same clocks if dirty.
It has sometimes been argued that the polishing and cleaning of dials, a process which may have been performed dozens of times since the clock was made, is not good practice in so far as it gradually wears away the engraving till it remains as only a thin shadow of itself. There is something to be said for that point of view, the more so if you ever saw, as I once did, an amateur with a belt sander enthusiastically honing away the old lacquer and perished silver from a longcase dial and at the same time rubbing off half the depth of the engraving!
On the other hand a dial which is left dirty, tarnished, and on which the lacquer has discoloured and the silver become blackened, is no asset to a home. There is even a danger of 'atmospheric etching', where the dial, now unprotected from having lost its coat of lacquer, may become pock marked from atmospheric pollution. It is a fact that the engraving on some brass dials is very thin, bordering on faint, and I can think of no other reason for this than over-cleaning or too frequent cleaning. To clean or not to clean? You pay your money and you take your choice.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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