Collecting Antique Clocks Henry Webster of Aughton again
An exceptionally handsome and rare clock came to my attention recently. It was just the kind I like – early, provincial, northern, and by a little-known but superbly-talented clockmaker. What better toy could a clockie have to play with? But also it brought home to me how little we know about these early provincial clockmakers. We are still only just beginning to find out details of who they were and where and when they worked. The clock in question was a square dial lantern clock signed 'Henry Webster Fecit'.
This clock was first pictured in Clocks Magazine in November 1979 when it was in a restorer's workshop awaiting a cleaning, which, to judge by the look of it, would be its first in many years. At that time Henry Webster of Aughton (near Ormskirk in Lancashire) was not documented at all, not even in my book on Lancashire Clockmakers published in 1975. At that time it was thought that the clock was made by a London clockmaker of that name: "Henry Webster, son of Henry Webster of St. Giles Cripplegate, Brewer, was apprenticed in August 1700 through the Clockmakers' Company to Richard Warren and was freed in June 1710." In 1979 the clock was assumed to be by Henry Webster of London because he was the only Henry Webster recorded in the books at anything like the right period.
Just one year later 'The Arthur Negus Guide to English Clocks' came out (1980) picturing another lantern clock by Henry Webster in the collection of Temple Newsam House, Leeds, also assumed to be by this London maker. Arthur Negus was a celebrated personality at the time appearing as an expert in numerous television antiques programmes. Calling it his book might be thought of by some as a slight misnomer, not least because he did not write a single word of it. It was written by a friend of mine, David Barker. Arthur's contribution was limited to turning up to have his photograph taken with David for the book jacket, while his taxi waited at the door with the engine ticking over to depart as soon as the camera shutter had closed. But the point is that even as recently as 1980 we did not know who Henry Webster was.
In 1989 George White's book on 'English Lantern Clocks' pictured two lantern clocks by him and by now he had learned that Webster came from Aughton. At that time he counted three known clocks by Webster, two of which were in museums. White did not include the example in Clocks Magazine in1979 in his tally, so that makes four examples then known. In June 1994 I wrote an article for Clocks Magazine, which described a fifth clock and detailed those facts I had been able to uncover about Webster's life by searching the parish registers of Aughton. Well 1994 may seem a long time ago to those who have never heard of Arthur Negus, but it is very recent in terms of the worldwide study of horology.
Henry Webster was born about 1660. He was just possibly the one of this name baptised on the 12th April 1668 at Ormskirk the son of John Webster, though if that was him he would have been very young (sixteen?) at the time of his marriage. It is always possible that he was not baptised at birth but was several years old by then. He was married on the 2nd February 1684/85 at Aughton to Katherine Cowburn, by whom six children were baptised at St. Michael's Aughton: 20th September 1685 Alice, 20th February 1687(-88?) Mary, 11th August 1689 Edmund, 14th January 1691/2 Thomas (died 1693); 8th June 1694 Ann and Sarah. Then two later children were baptised at Ormskirk, described as sons of Henry Webster of Ormskirk, who seems to be the same man: 24th September 1695 Thomas and 11th January 1697/8 Henry. If the Ormskirk man is the same person as at Aughton, then his last son was born after his death, for he was buried at Aughton on the 4th August 1697, his widow on the 2nd May 1708.
Seven lantern clocks are now documented by Henry Webster – or maybe only six, the number uncertain because of possible double-counting. Two of those are in museums – one in the Bristol Clock and Watch Museum, Bristol, Connecticut, and the other in Temple Newsam Museum, Leeds, Yorkshire. Five (or is it four) are privately owned. Most are single-handed lantern clocks with conventional dial, though one is unique in being the only seventeenth-century lantern clock to have rack-repeating striking, and that strikework being of a prototype experimental nature, and the clock I wrote about in 1994. The background to that clock is a bit complicated but basically Edward Barlow was credited with the invention of rack-and-snail striking and, though this is sometimes disputed today, it seems clear he experimented with repeating work using a snail. As Henry Webster was the only clockmaker living in the area, being only about ten miles from Edward Barlow, it is surmised that this particular repeating clock described in my 1994 article was built as an experiment based on Barlow's design. Amazingly that clock was discovered in quite recent years in a private house not twenty miles from where it was made, and it could well have been there since new.
All the clocks made by Henry Webster (in fact all those made by the Aughton 'school' of clockmakers) are lantern clocks. No longcase clock is known by any of them – though a lantern clock cased as a longcase is known by Barnaby Matthews, who worked close by. This may seem a little surprising as the earliest clocks in the north were almost always longcase examples, but evidently the Aughton group did not make them. The clock pictured here is a lantern clock but the only square dial clock known by him and the only two-hander. The dial is nine inches square. In fact it is the only two-handed clock known from what we call the Aughton 'school' of clockmakers, who lived in this locality, were connected by work and by marriage, and whose clocks are of such distinctively individual construction as to be unlike other lantern clocks. The dial follows Henry Webster's usual theme of tulips in a vase but this is a truly spectacular version, by far the most spectacular of any dial of the Aughton school. He was working for a period of only twelve years, from about 1685 to 1697. This clock dates from the 1680s and is one of his very earliest, perhaps THE earliest.
Webster was connected with the Barton family of clockmakers of Aughton. Two single-handed square dial examples are known by 'JB', assumed to be James Barton or perhaps John Barton. Another two single-handed square dial lantern clocks are known by Barnaby Matthews who worked nearby from about 1696 and married the daughter of James Barton in 1704. James Barton may have been working as early as the 1660s - he married in 1664. If we judge by the surviving clocks those by Henry Webster seem to be the earliest in this group even though John Barton was there before Webster. So in all five square dial lantern clocks are now known from this group, Webster's being the only two-hander.
All the movements of his clocks are in the very distinctive style of this small 'Lancashire' lantern clock school centred on Aughton and Ormskirk. All but this one of his clocks have conventional single-handed lantern clock dials. All but one are signed 'Henry Webster Fecit' at the top of the dial centre between XI and I, the exception being signed on the fret. All the dials have Henry Webster's own engraved theme based on flowers in a vase, but there are two versions of this pattern. On one the vase has handles and a massive open flowerhead facing IV and VIII. On the other the vase has no handles and has a large closed tulip head in profile pointing at III and IX. Whether one of these patterns predates the other is hard to say, but if this present example is his earliest clock then we can suppose the vase without handles came first.
The 1979 photographs of this particular clock show it neglected and with a clearly incorrect pair of much later hands – as the accompanying text points out. The clock was presumably cleaned at that time (shortly after the photograph was taken) and a pair of hands were made for it in the style of the correct period. The text describes the clock as being housed as a longcase in a lacquer case, and it is still in that case today.
Two things are apparent from examining the clock and case. One is that the spandrels of the clock have been replaced with a later pattern, one which I call a sphinx head and which dates from the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The case also dates from that period. Yet the case was made purposely for this clock, as no regular lacquer case was made for a nine-inch dial. By the time this case was made dials were rarely less than eleven inches square and more usually twelve. It stands 6ft 4in.
The conclusion is that in the second quarter of the 18th century the clock was 'updated' by replacing the old-fashioned spandrels with some of current fashion and by having a newly-fashionable green lacquer case made purposely for it. The old-fashioned lantern clock thus became a longcase and gained a new lease of life.
Copyright © 2014 Brian Loomes
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