Collecting Antique Clocks An Extraordinary Longcase Clock in the Egyptian Taste
Illustrated here is a most extraordinary and unique longcase clock of the finest quality made about 1812 by Samuel Allport of Birmingham. The maker was born about 1788, was apprenticed in December 1802 to William Waight of Birmingham for the usual term of seven years. He was presumably working as his own master by 1810. Little is known of his life thereafter except that he made a new turret clock for the steeple of Christ Church there in 1817, as is recorded in 'A Concise History of Birmingham' published in that very year. Samuel spent the rest of his life working in the trade in Birmingham's Bull Ring until at least 1860. By 1851 he had been joined by his son, Henry P. Allport.
This clock which Samuel Allport made is an eight-day with rolling moon and nicely-painted corners representing the Four Seasons, the japanned dial of the best type being purchased from specialist dialmakers Walker & Hughes, who also worked in Birmingham from 1812 to 1835. These are the dates they appear in the trades directory, which means of course that they may have bee there a year or two before that, working perhaps as early as 1810. Birmingham was always the major centre of japanned dialmaking in Britain, in fact in the world even. The clock and dial are of high quality but conventional. Though that is where convention ends, as this remarkable clock has a case like no other, made in the most up-to-the-minute fashion of the day and made in what was then described as the 'Egyptian taste'.
Scholars had always been interested in Classical architecture, principally that of ancient Greece and Rome, but also that of Egypt. But the interest of the public at large in all things Egyptian was given a considerable boost by Napoleon's military expeditions of 1798 and subsequent French occupation of Egypt, which lasted until 1801. Napoleon encouraged scholars and students, French ones in particular of course, to study the ancient ruins of Egypt, and books were published on this subject. The French defeat by Nelson's fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 further turned the attention of the British public towards things Egyptian.
Furniture with certain Egyptian features or influences was first introduced into Britain by Thomas Sheraton. This was not in his most famous and earlier works of 1791-94 or 1802, but in his last work, 'The Cabinetmaker, Upholsterer and General Artists' Encyclopaedia', the compilation of which started in 1804, but which was left unfinished on his death in 1806. It is this Encyclopaedia which for the first time showed Egyptian features applied to English furniture. Thomas Hope's 'Household Furniture', published in 1807, carried the new tastes forward. Hope was a wealthy gentleman who had personally visited many ancient sites of antiquity, including Egypt, and his book is said to be largely a catalogue of his own household furnishings. But it was George Smith's more practical book of 1808, entitled 'A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration', which extended the Egyptian influence. George Smith was a working cabinetmaker, who claimed to be upholsterer to the Prince of Wales (later George IV), and what the Prince had or did, represented the height of fashion. It was Smith who published designs for, and carried out in practical terms, themes which were only hinted at by Sheraton and Hope. He applied Egyptian ornament to otherwise conventional Regency forms. This vogue was at its height by 1810 and is said to have become absorbed into general furniture practice by 1812. These dates of 1810 to 1812 are exactly the years when young Samuel Allport was first setting out on his clockmaking career.
It would appear that this enthusiastic young man of about twenty two was absolutely up the minute with his knowledge of fashion in the world of furniture. Of course, he did not make this case personally. Clockmakers were workers in metal and bought their cases from specialist cabinetmakers or clock case makers, just as they also bought their dials from specialist dialmakers. The clock case might be ordered in one of two ways. The clockmaker might order a case of a style he particularly wanted, assemble the whole finished clock and case, set it on show in his sales shop and wait for a buyer.
The alternative method was for the clock to be made to fill an order placed in advance of its making. Most successful clockmakers had an order book, which they worked their way through, though only two such order books are known to survive in the history of clockmaking. If the clock were ordered in advance, then it is more than possible that the customer would have a considerable say in its makeup, and particularly in the style of its case - no doubt taking into account any advice offered by the clockmaker, who may also have taken into account any advice on the latest styles offered by his chosen cabinetmaker.
Whilst this was true of most established clockmakers, the big unknown here is whether a clockmaker newly embarked on his career, as Allport then was, would already have an advance order book this early in his life. Would a newcomer to the trade, fresh from his apprenticeship, already have a clientele? That seems to me a little doubtful. More likely this is young Samuel bursting with enthusiasm to release his new talents onto an unsuspecting world, and what better way than to order a magnificent case of a spectacular and totally novel styling, the like of which neither Birmingham nor the rest of the world had ever seen before.
Allport may have been au fait with the latest furnishing fashions and design books. If not, he certainly dealt with a casemaker, who was. But Samuel Allport must have had a controlling hand in the design of the case, even if perhaps he was influenced by the casemaker as to what was the latest and most fashionable thing to have. Who that casemaker was we don't know. The case is not signed, nor has it any sort of label attached - as they sometimes do, though very rarely.
Sheraton published only two clock case designs, and they, frankly, are a bit of a joke, exhibiting that Sheraton knew nothing about the clocks he was designing boxes for. But Samuel Allport's clock case does contain some stylistic features from Sheraton's time and earlier. The swan-neck pediment to the hood was a device in continued use by Sheraton, but had already been used in clock cases for the best part of a century, as well as in other furniture and in architecture, from house door crests to tombstones. The swan neck was probably the neatest way of avoiding a flat top, and nobody who knew what he was doing used a flat top in elegant clock casework, especially with arched dials, which virtually all clocks had by the end of the eighteenth century. Even today a flat-top to an arched-dial case is not the happiest of combinations, and such a clock is known in the trade as a 'hammerhead'.
One feature on this clock case, which Sheraton did use in his 1802 work, but not in his 1791-94 designs, is the swept foot, which we usually call a splayed foot or a French foot. So with this style of foot our unknown casemaker was bang up to date. Many clocks from this date and for the next twenty years or more adopted this foot style, and a very elegant one it is too.
The lavish use of inlaid string lines, in black and yellow, was a popular feature of many designs from Sheraton and before. But many of the most extraordinary features on this case are found nowhere before George Smith's work of 1808. The front-facing pillars to the hood and to the trunk of the case are topped not by capitals but by Egyptian heads with head-dresses. These are pure George Smith. So too are the double legs of each pillar, each leg with its separate human foot, each foot with its proper number of human toes. The heads and feet are ebonised; the rest of each pillar is in mahogany.
The case has another very unusual, if not unique, feature in that is has the motif of a double-headed eagle inlaid in black wood in the hood, trunk and upper base areas. The double-headed eagle has eyes of mother of pearl and a collar of pewter. The emblem in the hood is in the form of two separate inlays, that is a double-headed eagle separated into two disembodied halves. The double-headed eagle as a symbol is a common heraldic feature, which appears on many crests and coats of arms. It seems very unlikely the cabinetmaker inlaid this device by pure chance, and it may well be that this device relates to a local family for whom the clock was made. I cannot ascribe this to any particular family. With local knowledge, of course, this might well be possible.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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