Collecting Antique Clocks Lantern Clocks converted to spring drive
Lantern clocks can be mysterious things for a beginner, and can even be puzzling to the experienced. Buyers want to buy something they can hope to understand, to know if it is a genuine clock, if it has been altered, and if so, in what way, and does it matter? The problem with lantern clocks is that almost all of them have been altered, even those we regard as totally genuine. Recognising the nature of the alterations takes a little patience and understanding, but very briefly these alterations are as follows.
The earliest lantern clocks were regulated by balance wheel control, a large circle of brass which rotates back and forth above the top of the movement (below the bell), thus slowing down the descent of the weight to a measurable pace. No example survives today with its undisputedly original balance wheel regulator. They were inaccurate as timekeepers and needed winding at least twice a day, some three times a day. Therefore they were normally modified in due time to a more convenient (once-a-day) winding system and were adapted to some form of regulation by pendulum, which first appeared in 1658 and greatly improved timekeeping. Most balance-wheel clocks which survive today with the original movement have been modified to some form of pendulum control. Those balance wheel clocks which do have balance wheel regulation today are examples which have been converted back in relatively recent times (perhaps in the last fifty years or so) to balance wheel by restorers or collectors, who wanted to see them back in their 'original' form. A collector buying such a clock today accepts that it has been through some form of conversion as part of its natural journey through history.
Those lantern clocks originally built with a short pendulum (called a verge pendulum) occasionally survive in that form, but the great majority were later modified to long pendulum (the same as that in a longcase clock), as that provided more accurate timekeeping. Again collectors accept this is part of the normal development of a lantern clock over the years, though those scarce examples which still survive with the original short pendulum are more highly prized. Those built originally with a long pendulum, were usually left unmodified.
To sum up, the three basic forms of lantern clock - balance wheel, short pendulum and long pendulum - may survive today in any one of those forms and are recognised as 'genuine' even if converted later to a different form of escapement.
But a fourth type of conversion exists whereby the original movement was completely removed, leaving an empty box or shell, which was then fitted with a new spring-driven movement such as was used in a table clock or mantel clock. This ran for a week at one winding and showed the time of two hands, which we have today come to expect as normal. Most of these spring-driven conversions were done about a hundred years ago. At that time weight-driven lantern clocks were considered obsolete. Winding once a day (or, even worse, two or three times a day) was unacceptable to a householder of that period, as was imperfect timekeeping and time indication by a single hand showing only hours and quarters, which all original lantern clocks did. Many such clocks were turned in to the clockmaker in part exchange for a new one, being then broken into parts for the value of the metal content, which meant that such clocks were totally destroyed. The loss rate of lantern clocks must have been tremendous, as the clocks themselves were unsaleable whereas the re-usable metal content had permanent value.
Then came a time when antiquarian-minded owners began to take what they saw as a 'historical' interest by having fitted a new bracket clock movement into the outer shell of what was clearly an ancient clock. At that time they were often called 'Cromwellian' clocks by their owners. There is a sort of half-truth in that term in so far as clocks from Cromwell's era were all lantern clocks, though all lantern clocks were not from Cromwell's era - they were also made before and after Cromwell's time. Conversion to spring drive was a drastic remedy, but it did have the saving grace that it was better than the clock's being destroyed for scrap metal.
Ironically the serious collector has until quite recently always scorned these spring conversions as being clocks which were spoiled, and refused to buy them. Twenty years ago they were little regarded and sold very cheaply to those who could not afford the 'original' version. That situation has now changed. Collectors now begin to realise that such clocks in themselves, even though converted, can be rare relics, sometimes by makers whose work is otherwise unknown or exceptionally scarce. Those who enjoy the mechanics find their movement every bit equal to those of a bracket clock of the period of the conversion, c.1900. These clocks are in a sense Victorian bracket clocks using a brass frame three hundred years old or more.
There are several types of spring movement which were used for this conversion. By far the best, the most costly at the time and probably the commonest, was an English-made single, or double, fusee movement with anchor escapement, made to a size to fit exactly inside the lantern clock top and bottom plates. A fusee was a cone-shaped gear normally fitted in English spring clocks to overcome the problem met with in most European clocks (which usually did not have fusees), in that the spring pulls more strongly when newly wound than when nearly run down. This is why a fusee-less French clock may run fast on Monday, keep time on Thursday and run slow on Saturday. A fusee movement was exactly the same as that fitted in a new English bracket clock of the day (c.1900). These were by no means cheap but were the best of their kind. So that expense was not spared in converting these clocks by those seeking to preserve the external 'antiquity' whilst adapting the clock to normal household use. Double fusee means a clock striking the number of each hour; single fusee a non-striker, though the latter normally strike one at each hour, called 'passing strike'. A conversion lantern clock with a French or German movement will not usually bring as much as one with a good English fusee one, nor will it usually be as reliable a timekeeper.
An example of how important spring conversion lantern clocks can be, is seen in the example illustrated above by Richard Smith. It is signed 'Ricardus Smith de Novo Castro fecit' and was converted to spring drive (with single fusee passing strike) about 1900. This clock appeared in the auction of a major auction house, who misread it as Nobocastro, and failed to understand the placename. In fact it is clearly Novo Castro, a Latinisation, which these early makers loved, of plain old Newcastle (on Tyne). The clock bears the inscription on the front fret 'Moses son of Isaac Henzell'. Richard Smith married in Newcastle in 1656 and died there in 1681. Research established that the Henzells were Huguenot immigrants, that Moses Henzell married in 1669, and that this clock was clearly a wedding gift from father to son at that time. This clock in fact (or the outside shell of it, which is the only part which survives of Richard Smith's work) is not only accurately dateable but appears to be the oldest surviving clock to be made in Newcastle on Tyne. Were it not for the act of conversion, it is probable this clock would have been scrapped a century ago and the work of this maker would today be totally unknown.
A few conversion lantern clocks are pictured here and include some examples by makers whose work is exceptionally rare, especially early makers from provincial regions. Andrew Prime for example was the brother-in-law of Ahasuerus Fromanteel, the most famous clockmakers of all time, who brought the pendulum to this country from Holland in 1658. Prime worked with Fromanteel, and the castings he used in his lantern clocks were those very distinctive ones used by the Fromanteel family. Not more than four lantern clocks are known at all by Prime. Clocks of this scarcity should be in museums. With such rare items collectors cannot pick and choose, and perhaps decide to 'wait' for a more original item by a specific maker. I have been documenting lantern clocks for forty years without previously coming across items by some of these rare makers. How long can a collector wait?
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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