Collecting Antique Clocks Grand mahogany painted-dial longcase clocks from north-west England: Period One 1770-1800
Painted dials were first used commercially on longcase clocks from about 1772 and for the first generation of thirty years or so they fall into a readily-recognisable pattern, which I call Period One. This period is most easily characterised by its numbering pattern of marking Roman hours and Arabic minutes, numbered at every fifth unit. The following remarks apply to clocks of this First Period from this particular region.
The dial-making partners of Osborne and Wilson worked together in Birmingham from 1772 till 1777, then separately and independently till the end of the century. Almost all examples of eighteenth century painted dials will be found to have been made by one (or both) of these two men, though there were one or two other dial makers towards the end of the century, whose work is known but who have not yet been identified.
Eight-day white dial clocks with moonwork were the most costly versions available, though rocking figures came a close second. For those who wanted ' the best', that is the most costly version, then they could opt for a moon dial with 'extra' painting in the dial centre. One form of 'extra' was to have the dial centre painted with two birds; another was to have two sprays of flowers. But perhaps the version to make the grandest statement was to have the centre painted with a male and female figure, often in a garden setting, or sometimes pictured as a shepherd and shepherdess. The centre figures might be on a white ground or (usually later on) on a fully-painted central panel. In fact it is difficult to imagine anyone further away in real life from the humble shepherd and shepherdess characters, than the wealthy couple who first bought such a clock. But such people sometimes saw themselves in this idyllic pastoral setting, much as high society characters in Jane Austen novels might act such parts in charades and house-party plays.
Such a clock dial was the personalised number plate of the day. Such a clock said to all who saw it: 'This is my clock, this is me, the owner, and this is my lady wife, and this is our estate garden, and this the magnificent case we had made for it, the finest and grandest that money can buy'. And they were right!
Oak examples of such clocks exist, but the grandest of them are usually in mahogany, known as the King of Woods, and having to be shipped half way round the world from the Americas before desperate cabinetmakers could scramble through the dockyard timber stacks to outbid each other for the finest cuts. There are plain versions of mahogany clocks. But those who wanted, and could afford, the best (most desirable) clocks of the day, very often also wanted the fanciest cases to show them off in. The grandest of these First Period mahogany cases were undoubtedly made in the North-west, if we take that as being that north-west corner of England from Birmingham upwards.
The best cases of this period and region represent the very best cabinetmaking skills ever witnessed in clock casework. The style was that of the day and region, and that was grand and flamboyant. Today's collectors either love it or hate it. But whatever your view of the style, the workmanship and materials were of the very best and were never again equalled later. These clocks are as good as it gets.
Initially the flame veneers were chosen to use in book-matched form. Such figuring, often described as 'flame' mahogany, was rare and found only in those parts of the tree where a branch joined the trunk - known as 'crotch' mahogany. The main trunk section of the case was of a straight and plain-grain wood, fine for construction but boring if used for the 'showy' areas on a clock - which were the trunk door and the base. Those were the largest two areas of timber and these places were where the best-figured timbers were positioned. These two areas sold the clock (and still do), which everywhere else would have straight-grain (and boring) timber.
These prime areas were veneered in crotch mahogany, which was always used as a veneer. Partly it was too costly to use in solid form. But more to the point, it was also unstable in solid form and would have been likely to split, warp and tear itself apart by the sheer stresses and pressures within the wood. Therefore this fancy veneer was always laid onto a background of more stable nature - plain-grain, solid mahogany, or even plain-grain oak.
By the end of the century marquetry inlays became popular - of shells or fans, in multi-coloured woods. Shells proliferate as inlays at this one period only, probably a sort of shell mania derived from the fantastic and exotic shells brought back by explorers from Cook onwards from the far southern oceans.
These cases of the last quarter of the century do progress in style as pillars became bamboo-like in some examples and square-section in others. Dials grew wider as time passed, probably to allow more dial centre painting and to provide wider cases offering more space for inlay work.
Most such cases from this region lack brass fittings, as the utmost possible use was made of the cabinetmaker's skills. Capitals, quarter-capitals, swan-neck paterae, even lock escutcheons were almost always made of wood with only essentials such as hinges being of brass.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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