Perfect Timing


Starting in the late 18th century horologists and other artisans poured all their ingenuity and fantasy into extravagantly decorated mantel and desk clocks.

18th-century ormolu and Derby porcelain annular timepiece

A late 18th-century ormolu and Derby porcelain annular timepiece by Justin Vulliamy, with probably royal provenance.

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Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember, time is money,” in 1762, and people have taken that advice to heart ever since—though not always in the manner that the man on the hundred-dollar bill meant. Exquisite clocks unite time and money in the form of status symbols that wowed when they were new and still inspire awe as antiques. Prosperous homes of the 18th and 19th centuries had to have a tall-case clock, but one timepiece was not, and could never be, enough. Smaller clocks, variously called mantel, shelf, bracket, or table clocks, often graced the homes of the wealthy, and as technology advanced, even smaller timepieces—desk clocks—started appearing in the late 19th century. Both styles of design prove the adage that small is beautiful.

The term mantel clock, so called because many were placed on the mantel above a fireplace, refers to any timepiece that isn’t made to hang on a wall or sit on a floor. Spring-driven mechanisms, which didn’t need to rely on falling weights for power, freed these clocks to sit on flat surfaces. This freedom also encouraged designers to pay attention to every surface of the clock, the back included. With all sides visible, all sides deserved decoration. A great example is a 1795 George III painted satinwood bracket clock, now on offer at Mallett Antiques, a gallery with branches in London and New York. The delicate woodwork on the clock’s back is of a piece with the lavish decoration on its front and sides.

“Keep in mind the important function of a mantel,” says Ludovic Rousset of M.S. Rau of New Orleans. “It was the prominent spot in the main room, the focus. It was a very important place in the house. Generally, you had a mirror above the mantel. [The clocks] became really three-dimensional because you could show the back.”

Some of these free-standing clocks could be incredibly elaborate. A circa-1830 Austrian mantel clock at Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Mass., revels in its own details, which include gilt-painted lions, flowers, and an eagle, alabaster columns, and a brass-mounted porcelain dial. As if that weren’t enough, the dial showcases automata: a pair of cupids forging arrows. The one on the left strikes his anvil to mark the hour. Other antique clocks are desirable for their beauty as well as their innovations. Delaney also has a shelf model of a rosewood veneer acorn clock made by J.C. Brown of Bristol, Conn., in the mid- to late 1830s. Its looks are complimented by its works, which feature fusees, a function that enabled the eight-day spring-driven clock to behave more like a weight-driven clock. Spring-driven clocks had the disadvantage of running faster in the days after the clock is wound and running slower in the days prior to its next winding. The fusees equalized the effects of the springs and improved the clock’s accuracy.


The mantel clock form served as a magnificent platform for sculpture, and clock-makers exploited this to the fullest. Earlier this year Bonhams London auctioned a late 18th-century timepiece that likely belonged to the Prince of Wales. Created by Justin Vulliamy, of the noted Vulliamy family of British clockmakers, its construction posed special difficulties. Vulliamy did not make the biscuit porcelain figure of Andromache under his own roof; he contracted a British porcelain factory for the task. James Stratton, clock specialist at Bonhams, estimates that 5 to 10 pieces of this type might have been made. The steep price did as much to limit the numbers as the complexities of production. “It cost a lot of money,” Stratton says. “You had to be a member of the royal family or a member of the aristocracy to buy one.” A May 1784 bill addressed to the Prince of Wales for 90 guineas that describes a clock matching the Andromache’s description bears this out. After 50 years off the market, the Vulliamy sold for £120,100 ($184,145) in March.

The mantel clock that burns in Stratton’s memory was created to please another crowned head, and was even more complicated and elaborate. Delivered by Hartmann, Paris, for an 1801 forerunner of the World’s Fair held in the French capital, the gilt-clad marvel boasted no fewer than eight dials, three of which referenced the Republican calendar that Napoleon established in 1793. A now-curious dial devoted to the months of the year relied on a system invented after the French Revolution that replaced the months’ traditional names with new ones derived from words such as “foggy” and “snowy.” Stratton says that he and his colleagues were “100 percent sure that Napoleon saw this clock when he walked around [the exhibition floor] in 1801.” Auctioned at Bonhams’ New Bond Street location in June 2011, it garnered £322,400 ($354,600).

The name of Napoleon is forever linked to mantel clocks. Probably the best-known form of mantel clock is a tambour, which is commonly called a Napoleon clock because its shape recalls the silhouette of the French emperor’s iconic hat. So well-known is this form that E. Howard, a Massachusetts clock-maker, felt free to riff on it by blowing it up to delightfully absurd proportions. A handsome circa 1910 E. Howard mahogany tambour shelf clock on display at Delaney Antique Clocks could only fit the mantel of a giant: It measures 63 inches across, 38-and-a-half inches tall, and 7-and-a-half inches deep.

Another interesting spin on the Napoleon mantel clock is available at M.S. Rau. Dating to around 1825 and credited to André of Paris, the elegant timepiece spotlights a porcelain insert, painted to recall Jacques-Louis David’s famous equestrian portrait of Napoleon, and surrounds it with ormolu. As with the Vulliamy clock, André of Paris almost certainly looked to an outside specialist for the porcelain, but only one name is on the finished clock. The omission of the contributor’s name could have been calculated. Rousset speculates that “maybe they didn’t want the quality of the painting to take over the quality of the clock.”

Clocks were among the few areas within the decorative arts in which the Chinese relied on imports from the West—at least in part. In March, Bonhams New York sold a captivating late 18th-century Chinese tribute clock driven by English-made works. It stands out for its combination of Chinese details (the bejeweled Chinese character above the clock face means “great auspiciousness”) and European details (the four kneeling figures who hoist the double-gourd shaped case are Western in appearance). “I’ve never seen anything quite like this, though the materials and the methods of making are all quite common,” says Bonhams expert Jonathan Snellenburg, adding, “When Chinese buyers viewed the clock, they saw it as European, and when Europeans saw it, they saw it as Chinese.” (The winning bidder was American.) While it would have been given by an individual to a higher-ranking person, it does not seem to have been intended for the Emperor. And though it might look lavish, it’s actually on the modest side for a Chinese tribute clock, according to Snellenburg, who reports seeing far grander ones. Estimated at $80,000–120,000, it commanded $161,000.

As the 20th century approached, mantel clocks continued to change with the times and fashions. Macklowe Gallery of Manhattan recently sold a jaw-droppingly gorgeous circa-1900 Art Nouveau mahogany clock by Parisian furniture-maker Georges Ernest Nowak. “It’s unusual and pretty rare,” says Lary Matlick, vice president of the gallery. “It’s also finished very, very well. There’s a lot of three-dimensionality that’s lost in the photo.” Though it would have been contemporary-looking in its time, its manufacture was traditional in that it demanded contributions from a range of different artisans—bronze for the face and other details, inlay work, blue rippled glass for the back, cabinetry, and clockworks, among others. By 1940, the mantel clock had transformed to the point that Gübelin of Switzerland could create a timepiece that expertly combined the present and the past. The Renaissance-era scene places ivory figures against an ormolu background, but the clock itself is small and slim (under a foot tall and less than three inches deep) and calls to mind another standard mantel decoration: a framed painting. The Gübelin is now in the possession of M.S. Rau.

Desk clocks are mainly defined by their size—if they’re under 12 inches, they qualify, and most are significantly smaller than a foot. The same technological advances that gave rise to the pocket watch permitted freestanding clocks to shrink. M.S. Rau now has an interesting outlier among desk clocks-—a circa-1880 desk with a built-in clock. The desk is a copy of one originally built circa 1765 for the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin, Prime Minister under King Louis XV. He was among the very few people in the world then who would have needed to slice his day in precise-to-the-minute slivers to greet and hear as many petitioners as he could. If he did not control the time, he lost control of so much more. Having an impressive gilt-bronze clock hovering above the prime minister and his sitters as they conferred kept things moving and reinforced awareness of who was in charge.

That exception aside, desk clocks typically sport petite dimensions that lend themselves to jewelers’ flights of fancy. Cartier began offering timepieces in the late 19th century in styles ranging from clocks with guilloche enamel up to gem-laden, over-the-top confections. Hancocks of London currently has a circa-1930 Egyptian Revival Art Deco clock by Cartier that combines lapis lazuli, nephrite, rubies, and diamonds on a black enamel base. Other manufacturers of the era, such as Boucheron and J.E. Caldwell, raised simplicity to a virtue by employing a single slab of marble or onyx for a clock case. But arguably the finest desk clocks of the early 20th century gain their grandeur from a Russian-born dial-maker whose name deserves to be better known.

Vladimir Makovsky lent his talents to several Paris-based companies that produced clocks during the 1920s. A photograph of his inlay work should illustrate the dictionary definition of the word “breathtaking.” Steven Fox, a jewelry dealer in Greenwich, Conn., is an eloquent advocate for Makovsky and happens to have an Art Deco Chinoiserie clock featuring one of his dials. Graced with a coiling dragon with golden claws and a gold-fringed tail set against a mother-of-pearl backdrop of sky and waves, it is a tour de force. (Fox recently chose to consign the clock to Sotheby’s, which will offer it in its Important Watch Sale in New York on December 10.)

While Makovsky left Russia for Paris in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he does not appear to have trained in the ateliers of Fabergé. “We’ve owned a number of Fabergé pieces, and this has a different sensibility,” Fox says. “This is an art form that he’s really good at.” And while he would have had assistants, the physical work of creating the dial—hours upon hours of toil—seemingly fell to him. “From what I’ve seen, he did this work himself, but sure, he had men who did work with him,” he says. “He was involved with the placement of the stones and the building of the dial.”

The labor-intensive nature of the work limited Makovsky’s yield. Fox estimates that he has seen about a hundred pieces by the inlay artist, a census that includes cigarette cases, compacts, and vanity cases as well as desk clocks. At least two clocks with Makovsky dials were available as this article went to press in late October, the other being a circa-1925 Art Deco chinoiserie clock with a mother-of-pearl-heavy dial and a provenance from the royal family of Savoy. Even more notable is the fact that both clock dials bear Makovsky’s signature; not all his pieces do. Fortunately, by Makovsky’s day, there was no question that he would avoid the anonymity imposed on the 19th-century painter of the porcelain plaque on the André of Paris Napoleon clock. “He was so talented in what he did, anyone would have allowed him to sign it,” Fox says. “It came to that point.”

It’s not clear why the desk clock Fox has was commissioned, but it’s certainly special, and a perfect example of how 20th-century artisans elevated the clock from a precision device to a bijou. “Pieces of this sort were very rare. It’s such a strong visual piece,” he says. “Everything about this has a very strong sense of its time period, and of romance.” It may have been made to display in a department store window to lure holiday shoppers inside to buy. True or no, Fox has tested the idea by placing the clock in his own shop window and found that its pulling power is strong. “I put it in, and it never ceases to draw someone,” he says. “It never changes.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2015