Collecting Antique Clocks Joseph Curtis, clockmaker of Chew Magna in Somerset
Joseph Curtis the clockmaker of Chew Magna in Somerset is virtually unknown. He is vaguely recorded as c.1680 to c.1720, but nothing is actually documented about his life. In their book 'Bilbie and the Chew Valley Clock Makers' James Moore, Roy Rice and Ernest Hucker (1995) record that Mr. Curtis built the church clock at Burrington in1702, that at Banwell in 1705 and received payment on that one till 1712. These seem to be the only positive dates yet recorded about him Those books which record him as of Chew Magna and Axbridge do so in error as there is no evidence that he had any connection with Axbridge. In fact the Axbridge maker of this name seems to have been working much later.
'Somerset Clockmakers' by the late J. K. ('Jack') Bellchambers published in 1968, refers to a 'Mr. Curtis of Axbridge' who made a clockwork jack in 1705, which might just have been Joseph Curtis of Chew Magna. But this Curtis of Axbridge is believed to be William Curtis, and if so, the two men seem to have been quite separate people. No clock of this period (1705) is today recorded by William Curtis though a maker of this name is recorded there much later (1795). A William Curtis, who was married at Axbridge in 1747 and had children baptised there between 1748 and 1750, may or may not have been the clockmaker still working in 1795, but in any case he is much too late to be connected with Joseph Curtis of Chew Magna.
Clocks by Joseph Curtis are exceedingly rare. I know of only two, both lantern clocks, but a solitary longcase clock has also been recorded. Bellchambers illustrated one lantern clock in 1968 as plate 18a, its whereabouts today unknown. Another is the one pictured here, which was first brought to my attention by its then owner in 1976 - I still have the photograph he sent me at that time. He has since died and his collection of clocks was subsequently sold off at auction, this clock amongst them. George White in his book 'English Lantern Clocks' mentions a third example, said to resemble in some respects that of Bellchambers and illustrated in the Antiques Trade Gazette on 8th March 1986. This third clock, sold through the Clevedon Auction Rooms, Bristol, on 13th March 1986, looks so very similar to the one in Bellchambers, that I think it is the same clock, with a replaced top finial. So that makes Joseph Curtis's known lantern clocks two in number, or just possibly three.
The lantern clock pictured in Bellchambers is said to have had a verge pendulum and is signed on chapter ring 'Joseph Curtis Chew Magna'. It is dated by him to 'c.1680'. From several features of it I would have thought the clock more likely dates from the 1690s. The clock pictured here is signed in the dial corners 'Josh Curtis in Chew Magna' (an earlier position than on the chapter ring), was built with verge pendulum and was later converted to anchor. I would date this clock considerably earlier, to the 1670s or 1680s.
The fact that the wheelwork and collets in this present clock match throughout might imply that the conversion from verge escapement to anchor was done by Joseph Curtis himself. When the clock was altered from verge pendulum to anchor escapement and long pendulum, it was at the same time changed from a three-wheel to a four-wheel train to increase duration. At first the converter tried to lower the position of the hour wheel and he cut the dial sheet to take the hand in a lowered position, maybe a quarter of an inch lower than originally positioned. He then must have realised this would not work, as the hand would have centred too low to rotate sensibly around the chapter ring. He therefore re-positioned the hour wheel back where it had been originally, but this left an unsightly hole in the dial sheet below the hand centre. He therefore attached a brass patch by riveting it behind the hole to cover it, which was how the clock was until recently. This hole has now been filled in to make the dial look more respectable.
The two clocks have different pillars, finials and feet. This is not surprising since Bellchambers's clock has integral pillars, which we typically associate with the Bristol region. The clock pictured here however has composite pillars, that is with finials and feet screwed separately onto the pillar ends and holding the plates between them sandwich-like. This is the principle used in London-made lantern clocks (and in many elsewhere) and is what I call the 'London sandwich' construction. We see this now and then with clocks from this region and from the West Country in general, where the preference seems to be to use integral castings in what we term the Bristol manner but now and then composite castings were used instead in the London manner. We know several clockmakers in the region to whom this applied - William Martin of Bristol, William Holloway of Stroud, John Bennett of Plymouth, Walter Archer of Stow on the Wold, William Monk of Berwick St. John. Why this should be so we can only guess. We must assume that local clockmakers used whichever castings were most readily available at the time.
Bellchambers's clock is clearly later than this present one, with wider chapter ring and meeting-arrowhead half-hour markers. The narrow chapter ring of the earlier clock has a bolder form of what I call the 'matchstick flower' half-hour marker, based vaguely on London 'matchstick flower' styling of the same period. The chapter ring is thick and deeply and very boldly engraved with great confidence, a feature more associated with the West Country. The implication is that the engraving attempts vaguely to follow London in style but was done locally in the West Country. The two clocks have different bellstraps, different hands, different dial centres, which features again suggest that the Bellchambers clock is later. Both have lion-and-unicorn frets, his with Royal Arms, the present one with what appears to be a real family coat of arms.
Researching Joseph Curtis was fraught with difficulties. The earlier parish registers are lost and pretty well all the wills and inventories for Somerset were destroyed by German bombs in Word War II. This deprived us of our two most likely sources of information. From what research I could do in the surviving parish registers, I learned that although there were only four or five families named Curtis living in Chew Magna at this period, there were no less than THREE with a head of the family called Joseph Curtis within distance of the time the clocks were made. The parish clerk of the day would personally have known and recognised each of the three Joseph Curtises. In the parish registers he tried to designate which of his entries related individually to Joseph Curtis senior and junior, father and son, and the other quite different one who was a glazier! He tried to differentiate in a way that was probably absolutely clear to him, but is less so to me, trying to make sense of them over two and a half centuries later.
He described them as 'Joseph Curtis senior', Joseph Curtis junior', and 'Joseph Curtis glazier'.
My deduction is that the clockmaker was Joseph Curtis senior, who had a wife named Dorothy. Dorothy was buried on the 26th January 1718/19, described as 'wife of Joseph Curtis senior', so we know he was still alive then. Joseph himself, 'Joseph Curtis senior', was buried on the 22nd January 1726/26. It is just possible that Joseph married again, as one Alice Curtis, widow, was buried 13th January 1726/7. This is all I could glean about Joseph from the parish registers. However we can guess that the parish clerk's logic would suggest that Joseph senior might be the father of Joseph junior, who was probably born in the mid 1680s, which would set Joseph senior's birth around1650 and would mean he was of a likely age to have made the clocks. Joseph senior would also have been alive at the time that we know the clockmaker was paid for work on local clocks (1702-1712) and at the time of the dates (unreliable though they may be) estimated for examples of the clockmaker's work (1680-1720). Joseph Curtis the clockmaker is said to have owned the Pelican Inn, which is still in the village today. Whether or not this was so, I have no way of knowing.
Just to help clear up loose ends Joseph Curtis the glazier was buried on 25th February 1730/31 (when we know from other sources that Joseph Curtis junior was still alive) and Joseph Curtis junior was buried on 29th May 1735. So finally Joseph the clockmaker was pinned down as closely as we are likely to get.
Since this was written another lantern clock has come to light by this maker, signed above the engraved dial centre 'Joseph Curtis in Chew Fecit'. This clock has its original verge pendulum and the original hand, not surprisingly a little pitted from rust. It is however of much grander nature than the other two made with integral castings having feet and finials as a part of the pillar casting. This clock is in the full-blown West Country style with those type of tall, multi-flanged feet that I describe as having 'high heels' but also with the proudest, tall and busy finials West Country finials based on an urn. These features make it an altogether grander clock.
The dial centre is loosely based on the London pattern of the 1660s, with the engraved tulip-like flowers emerging from a central bloom positioned above the VI numeral. The signature sits within the space intentionally left for it in this design. The half-hour markers are of that type which has multiple arrowheads meeting, a style which began in the 1680s but is not widespread till about 1690. All these features lead me to date to this clock to the 1690s.
The fret is of that typical West Country favourite pattern of the lion and unicorn, supporters of the Royal Arms. The original bellstrap still carries its original finial, which is a match to those on top of the main pillars. The clocks retains its original iron hanging hoop, which is of a shape popular in the West Country, whereby the hoop, semi-circular on some clocks, is here flattened and leaves a single hole for its hanging hook.
Why do West Country clocks from the same maker sometimes vary this much? Well there are two or three possible reasons. One is the period, as a clockmaker would not make the same unchanged, cloned object throughout his working life. Nothing in clockmaking remained static. Along with this comes the question of where he obtained his castings, as his source would hardly remain unchanged through such a period. But also there is a question of quality - some customers would want the finest example he could make, whereas others might want a more modest example, made down to a price.
In London lantern clocks this variation is less pronounced, as the castings suppliers were probably all producing similar styles at any one time and the quality had to remain consistently high. But in a rural area clockmakers were struggling to find clients and would take on all orders gratefully, of whatever price level. In a location such as the West Country clockmakers might initially have obtained their castings from London by sea and might not have had much choice of locally available ones. But later that local choice would be greater as more brassfounders became established and this is probably why the full-blown West Country integral pillars became more numerous.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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