Buying Your First Lantern Clock - Some pointers for beginners
How many times have I heard people say: "I always wanted to own a lantern clock but never quite had the courage to buy one"? Those new to lantern clocks find them bewildering and often scary on account of the variety of types and the very high prices some lantern clocks will command. Is it old, modern, old with serious alterations, a fake, or made up from old bits and pieces of several different clocks? And how can I tell? All of these exist and are out there on the market. Perhaps the following points will explain some of the basics and help remove some of these fears.
WHAT IS A LANTERN CLOCK?
Lantern clocks were the first household clocks in England. What could be more satisfying to a clock collector than to own one of these, marking as they do the very beginnings of domestic clockmaking? The earliest were made in London from about 1600 but they continued to be made there and, from mid century, in the Provinces too till a little after 1700, and in some areas of provincial England till about 1750 or even later. It follows that any collector will find the oldest the most interesting but of course they are also the scarcest and, as a general category, the most expensive – and therefore the scariest to a novice.
Lantern clocks of this sort of antiquity were always driven by weights, the earliest needing winding every eight to twelve hours, then, starting from about 1670, every thirty hours. Once-a-day winding was the best they ever reached, if you see infrequent winding as being a desirable feature to aim for. They indicated time in units of a quarter-hour by a single hand. Very occasionally a seventeenth-century lantern clock had two hands, usually those that chimed quarter hours. But almost all with two hands were very 'late' ones (e.g. from the late eighteenth century) or have been converted to two hands later.
Lantern clocks were made with one of three kinds of timekeeping escapements. In historical sequence these were: balance wheel, short pendulum or long pendulum.
BALANCE WHEEL LANTERN CLOCKS
The earliest lantern clocks were controlled by a wheel above the topplate that swung back and forth when set in motion by the drive weight. This wheel was called a balance wheel or just a balance. They had a separate set of wheels (known as a 'train' of wheels) for the hourly striking and that was driven by its own separate weight. So these earliest clocks had two weights, one to run the going and one the striking. The timekeeping of balance clocks was erratic – I have seen such clocks gain perhaps a quarter of an hour in the morning and maybe lose that much in the afternoon. The balance-wheel regulation was superseded by much more accurate control with a pendulum about 1660, but the pendulum came only slowly into use on lantern clocks and it was not till perhaps the 1680s that balance wheel control began to fall from general use. So it was quite normal for balance-wheel lantern clocks to be made long after the pendulum was known.
Within a very few years the greater accuracy of the pendulum was acknowledged and many clocks made with balance-wheel control were altered, 'modernised' in effect by converting them to pendulum. In fact this tendency to convert balance-wheel lantern clocks to pendulum was so great that virtually every single one was converted. A clock was a valuable item and owners did not hesitate to 'modernise' its mechanics rather than buy a new one. Such a conversion from balance to pendulum was a modification any clockmaker could do, and some were even 'put to pendulum', as they termed it, by those who had actually made them as balance clocks not that many years earlier. The result is that lantern clocks with the original balance wheel are exceptionally rare, so rare that I have come across less than a dozen in almost fifty years of handling such clocks.
A good many lantern clocks alleged to have original balance-wheel control are found on close examination to have been re-converted back to balance for collectors seeking to set them back to their original drive method. This was common practice until recent times, though nowadays we tend to leave the clock in its converted pendulum form, seeing that as a part of its natural progression through history.
A conversion to pendulum could have been to verge escapement (with short pendulum) or to anchor escapement (with long pendulum). The short (verge) pendulum was known by 1660; the long (anchor escapement) pendulum by 1670. We might add ten years for that knowledge to have become widespread. Because the long pendulum kept better time than the short one the great majority of conversions tended to be to long pendulum once clockmakers were familiar with it. Conversions from balance to short pendulum tend therefore to be very unusual as they only really occurred during that short period, roughly between 1660 and 1680. Because they are uncommon a conversion from balance to verge tends to be more prized by collectors than one converted to long pendulum.
The fact that balance-wheel lantern clocks have long ago been converted to pendulum, usually long pendulum, is not regarded today as detrimental. It was normal practice, carried out almost universally. If you buy a lantern clock today that was made originally with a balance you must expect it to have been converted to pendulum, or possibly re-converted back to balance. Both are highly desirable with probably a preference for the one put back to balance, because that can be seen to work exactly as the maker intended.
SHORT PENDULUM LANTERN CLOCKS
The short pendulum, usually known as a verge pendulum, was the first kind to appear in clockwork and was known by 1660. It was introduced into England a year or two before 1658 by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, but it was thought to have been used almost exclusively by Fromanteel and his immediate associates for the first ten years or so. So we do not usually expect verge pendulum clocks to date before about 1665 or 1670.
The anchor escapement introduced an improved form of pendulum as far as timekeeping was concerned and that was widely known by 1680. We might therefore expect short pendulum lantern clocks to date between 1665 and 1680, but it is not that simple. The short (verge) pendulum was often retained in lantern clocks for a good many years after the long pendulum was known, and we see them still being constructed into the 1690s and even beyond 1700. The reason the verge pendulum continued to be used in lantern clocks long after the long pendulum became an option was probably because it made the clock conveniently portable and was also easier to set running, as the verge was far less fussy about levels than the anchor escapement.
LONG PENDULUM LANTERN CLOCKS
Lantern clocks built with anchor escapement and long pendulum can date as early as the 1680s but are unusual before the 1690s and continued until lantern clocks finally faded from fashion. This type was the ultimate in lantern clock timekeeping and was not subject to later modification or 'improvement' – except of course that, along with lantern clocks with other types of escapement, ALL were open to possible conversion to a spring-driven movement (for which see below).
WHAT IS A SPRING CONVERSION LANTERN CLOCK?
A lantern clock with its entire movement replaced by a spring-driven one is usually known today as a spring conversion lantern clock. This was commonly done about the end of the nineteenth century (sometimes even in the late eighteenth century), when daily, or twice-daily, winding was regarded as a nuisance. Such clocks were often regarded as obsolete and spring conversion saved them from being scrapped. Spring-drive conversion made the clock into an eight-day, with two hands for normal time reading of the day. Often the original hand was retained as the hour hand. A minute hand was made in what was thought an appropriate style.
The pendulum movement was usually made in England, purpose-made to fit the lantern case, usually two trains with twin fusees, being exactly the same high-quality movement as made for a bracket clock of the day. Occasionally they were single fusee movements, which either did not strike at all or had what is called a 'passing strike', meaning striking a single blow at each hour. A fusee is a feature of most English spring-driven clocks and is a cone-shaped gear, which had the effect of evening out the fact that a spring pulled more strongly when fully wound and less strongly when part run down.
Sometimes lantern clocks were converted to spring drive using a French (or sometimes a German) movement, which had no fusee but a going barrel instead. French-movement (non-fusee) conversions are less highly regarded than English fusee ones as they are of lesser quality, were cheaper to make, are less reliable and keep time less consistently. They would very likely be subject to the run-fast-Monday, run-slow-Friday syndrome.
Those who converted lantern clocks to a spring-driven movement were usually very proud of their work, of the fact that they had saved the clock from destruction and had made it permanently useful for posterity. They made fusee movements of the finest quality, as good as any bracket clock in the land made in that period. Some were so proud of their work they signed their names on the movement.
If the original top and bottom movement plates were retained some clockmakers would add a thin sheet of brass at the top, and sometimes on the baseplate too, to keep out dust entering through the now-vacant holes, since a spring-driven clock had more delicate wheelwork and so was more sensitive to dust that the original heavy-wheeled movement. In some examples the converter replaced the top and base plates completely for this same reason.
The point about conversion to spring drive was that the antiquity of the clock's external appearance was retained yet the clock was mechanically up-dated for what at the time was seen as much more convenient modern-day use. I don't think anyone converts clocks in this way today, which means that even the conversion movement itself is antique, quite probably over a hundred years old. In a clock that was 'modernised' a century ago even the modification can be interesting.
The fact that such clocks were converted is often regretted today. Until recently some purist collectors have regarded conversion clocks as being spoiled, which in a sense is true. Some still feel that way, but there are signs that attitude is changing. We have only to see the surprisingly high prices some conversion clocks bring today at auction to appreciate that fact. Of course they are in a much lower price bracket than those with the original movement.
The positive aspect is that conversion preserved at least the outer case. The alternative for a clock regarded as obsolete was destruction, the metals melted down for re-use, as brass was always a costly metal. There are instances where the only lantern clock(s) known to survive by certain early and interesting clockmakers are ones which were converted, without which we would know nothing of the work of those makers. Put such a clock before a collector and we are apt to see attitudes change instantly. Spring conversion lantern clocks have today become desirable in their own right, especially if by a very early or rare clockmaker, whose work may be unobtainable. Would we turn our backs on a lantern clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel because it was a spring conversion?
WHY WOULD I WANT TO BUY A CONVERSION LANTERN CLOCK?
For those not enthusiastic enough to want to wind a lantern clock daily, or in some early examples twice or even three times a day, a conversion lantern clock is one way to be able to enjoy the antiquity with convenient once-a-week winding and improved timekeeping. Such clocks are usually unchanged externally apart from the addition of a minute hand and the presence of one, sometimes two, winding holes. In some examples the movement was made to wind from the back, to avoid cutting into the dial design.
An added advantage is that a conversion lantern clock has no hanging weight(s) or pendulum and can therefore be used on a mantle shelf or table top or any flat surface in exactly the same way as a bracket clock. Today conversion lantern clocks, though nowhere near as valuable as 'unconverted' ones, are highly saleable to a far wider public, who enjoy the clock for what it is – and at a much lower price.
OTHER FORMS OF LANTERN CLOCK
The traditional shape and style of a lantern clock is one we all recognise. But as time went by other forms also occurred alongside the traditional one. Some were made with a square dial; others had an arched dial. Both these styles resembled that shape of dial seen in longcase clocks, of which the square dial version had appeared by 1660 and the arched dial by the 1680s.
Their dials followed the shape of longcase clock dials but they were considerably smaller. Dials could be as small as three inches wide, but were more usually around five or six inches across. They still had the traditional lantern clock movement with feet and finials and usually with frets too, though arched dial examples had no room for a front fret. Their escapements could be verge pendulum or anchor, but the balance wheel was not used in these forms. Most still had the hoop and spurs whereby they could be hung from a hook on the wall.
Arched dials were sometimes made in what we call "Turkish Market" form, that is with their numerals in Arabic. They were made for export not just to Turkey but to the entire Ottoman Empire, which at that time included not just the Middle East but much of eastern Europe and North Africa. Some clockmakers, mostly London-based, specialised in Turkish Market clocks, longcase and bracket clocks as well as lantern clocks.
Occasionally we see eccentric examples of lantern clocks, made following the traditional style but using a much larger proportion of iron. I think of these as "blacksmith clocks", and we know some were made by blacksmiths, who perhaps made just an occasional clock. To these men iron was their natural material, which they could work into any shape they wanted, whereas brass castings usually had to be purchased from a specialist brass caster. And of course iron was much cheaper than brass, only about a tenth of the price.
In some areas longcase clocks were made with lantern clock movements. By this I mean not just four-posted constructions with iron or brass posts, but using the same cast brass pillars (finished by turning) as seen in lantern clocks. These are not lantern clocks. Their dials are larger, starting at nine or ten inches wide; they have no finials, usually no feet, and no hoop and spikes.
HOW MUCH WILL A LANTERN CLOCK COST ME?
You can see lantern clocks for sale at auction and on Ebay for as little as £100. Good luck with those. A genuine period lantern clock of the seventeenth or eighteenth century is going to cost thousands not hundreds. You might find a wreck in poor condition, much altered or with important parts missing (as important as the dial even!) for a few hundred pounds – if you want to own a wreck. But you are unlikely to find a genuine clock less than £1,500 to £2,000, and that probably for a poor stereotype, perhaps very late or miserable-looking example. Or maybe one "waf", as they say in auction catalogues, meaning "with all faults".
A good example of those periods is likely to cost over £4,000 and quite possibly twice that. An early example or one by a reputed maker can easily run over £10,000, even at auction and even if unrestored and not in working condition. £20,000 is not unknown. The world record price at auction stands currently at just under £150,000.00!
WHAT ABOUT RESTORATION?
If a lantern clock is offered for sale by a dealer you would expect it to be in working condition, and unless otherwise stated, unless otherwise stated, and probably to have undergone a mechanical service or overhaul, with or without external polishing and cleaning (some like them shiny and others don't). Some collectors like to buy lantern clocks in totally untouched condition, complete or not, working or not, and because of that dealers will sometimes offer them for sale in that state. To bring a lantern clock to good working condition, with or without cleaning, can be a costly affair, and that cost must go onto a dealer's selling price, as well as his profit margin and maybe the cost of considerable delay till the work is done.
Most people would want a clock that has been serviced to be brought to such a condition where it is safe to run it every day. In fact most collectors DON'T run their lantern clocks all the time, as they see that as aggravating wear on wheels and pinions that are already worn and that have a finite life. They may well want their lantern clocks to be in full working order, but in fact they run them just occasionally for pleasure.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY RESTORATION?
We probably mean the clock will have been worked on by a skilled and experienced professional restorer, not dipped in a bucket of paraffin by the odd job man down the road, who managed to force the wheels to turn by hanging on a twenty-pound weight! It amounts to what today's generation like to call "conservation", which always sounds a rather grandiose term to me. It goes without saying that a professional restorer will "conserve" what exists, mend any broken part and make any part that is missing to enable the clock to run. A professional restorer will want to clean certain parts, in particular the teeth of wheels and pinions and their pivots, as running a clock with dirt or corrosion or rust in these areas will cause excessive wear or worse. He also has a choice to clean all the mechanical parts, plates, pillars, dial, in fact the whole clock. He can either clean these to a polished finish or just sufficiently to remove any surface dirt and leave the surfaces clean but in a mellow and unpolished state. Some like to see the exterior left uncleaned, others like it to shine. Many find comfort in dirt, as they see it as an indication of age – which is not necessarily true.
A good restorer will be able to recognise from his experience which parts are original, and any that are replacements or altered. He should also be able (with signed clocks) to identify its maker, look him up in the appropriate books, which you will expect him to have in his library, and pass that information on to you. In other words he will be able to analyse the clock and tell you its age and what is apparent to him of its history.
A professional restorer is highly skilled and will charge for his time. You can expect to pay him anywhere from £600 to £1,000 to service and clean a lantern clock, assuming no parts are broken or missing or worn beyond saving. With most parts problems of wear or damage can be overcome by skilled repairing rather than replacing.
It follows that if you buy a restored lantern clock the cost of that work will be included within the price. If you buy one unrestored, expect to spend up to £1,000 on it – if you happen to know a skilled restorer.
If you buy from a dealer you will expect all this to have been done already.
WHY ARE SOME LANTERN CLOCKS UNSIGNED?
Most lantern clocks are signed by the maker. The signature will be prominent in a very visible place at the front of the clock, such as along the base of the front fret or in the dial centre. It will not be hidden away at the back. If the signature is not very obvious then it is one of a considerable number that were sold unsigned. Why was that?
In the very earliest period, say before 1640, a considerable proportion of lantern clocks were unsigned. It is something we have come to expect. Why that is so we are not sure but it is probably to do with the control exercised by trade guilds over the trades. Those who belonged to an appropriate guild (such as the Blacksmiths' Company or later the Clockmakers' Company) would be sure to advertise their names prominently. Those who did not belong to guilds were considered as illicit craftsmen and were in fear of being persecuted and even prosecuted, so not surprisingly many concealed their identity by leaving their clocks unsigned, or maybe signed just with initials.
Later on, from the 1640s to perhaps 1700 we still find unsigned clocks. These are usually clocks showing every indication of having been made in London, yet unsigned. Just occasionally they are signed in a hidden place, such as on that area of the dial sheet covered by an alarm disc, and that gives us a clue as to why. It was because some makers of lantern clocks supplied others, who retailed them, perhaps shopkeepers, jewellers, goldsmiths, those who had outlets for clocks but did not make them themselves.
A maker of lantern clocks who regularly supplied the trade in this way could not always know in advance which retailer might buy from him, but he knew enough to realise that the retailer would not want to sell them with the maker's name on. So the clockmaker left those clocks unsigned, or maybe just occasionally added the retailer's name as a last-minute request.
Unsigned clocks may be just as well made as signed ones, but a good, well-known maker's name is often preferred.
WHERE CAN I BUY A LANTERN CLOCK?
Lantern clocks are a specialist branch of antique clocks. Some dealers in antique clocks sell them and some don't. A few dealers specialise in lantern clocks. Some surface in auctions and some auctioneers are very knowledgeable about these clocks, though many will openly admit they are not. Some can be found in junkshops.
My advice is to buy from someone who knows what he is selling. Unless you are experienced then buying a clock without advice at auction or from a junk shop is asking for trouble. It may seem especially tempting if a lantern clock is about to sell at what looks like a very low price. Experienced buyers will not let a good item slip by un-noticed and the fact that the price seems low should in itself warn you off. You can bet that all the potential buyers (dealers and collectors) have seen it and have deliberately refrained from bidding. This is one way you can benefit from the knowledge of others.
Ask all the questions you can think of before you buy. Don't be afraid to ask what might even be very basic questions. There is no shame in asking. If the vendor can't answer your questions go to someone who can. Asking questions is the only way you can gain experience. That and looking at as many examples as you can find, which for most people means consulting reference books.
BOOKS ABOUT LANTERN CLOCKS
Discussion about lantern clocks in general clock books is usually very shallow, and certainly not informative enough to give a beginner enough knowledge and courage to buy. There are only three books, which are specifically about lantern clocks. They are:
ENGLISH LANTERN CLOCKS by W. F. J. Hana published in1979, a small book of 150 pages, mostly illustrations (145 photographs). Out of print.
ENGLISH LANTERN CLOCKS by George White published in 1989, same title as Hana but a much larger book with 445 pages and about 830 photographs. Out of print.
LANTERN CLOCKS, my own book published in 2008 with 528 pages and 1150 photographs. Still in print – see Books for Sale page of my website.
Anyone thinking of buying a lantern clock would do well to consult, or better still own, all three, as these are books you will need to keep referring back to.
Copyright © 2015 Brian Loomes
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