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The Art of Time Keeping

The Art of Time Keeping - September 2011 - n. 02
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The Art of Time Keeping - September 2011 - n. 02
The 16th century saw the production of the first instruments to measure time, previously only possible through the use of what were initially rudimentary, and then increasingly accurate, sundials.
But the 18th and 19th centuries were to see the real spread of the art of making timepieces. These two centuries saw startling technological progress in the design and production of mechanisms for clocks coupled with a growth in the variety of styles in painting, sculpture, architecture and above all in the applied arts. Works with new, original shapes and styles influenced the world of clocks, resulting in some truly superb settings for time-keeping mechanisms.
With a few rare exceptions, books on this subject generally deal more with the evolution of clocks from a technical point of view, leaving rather to one side their artistic development. And for a considerable period pendulum clocks were not a main item on art historians’ agenda, despite their strong links with so many other spheres in the applied arts. Often inspired by the great artists of their day, the ormolu figures above the clocks, or that they were set in, were absolutely praiseworthy from an artistic point of view. To such an extent that in the past unscrupulous art dealers had been known to remove the original bronze statuettes from their parent timepieces and sell them separately, paradoxically earning more from the sale of the statuettes than from the whole clocks. On several occasions I have recognised pieces which were originally part of clocks transformed into bronze statuettes by mounting them on suitably adapted marble bases.
Luckily nowadays pendulum clocks have been re-evaluated from an artistic point of view. Increasingly academics, antiquarians, auction houses and collectors are taking into greater account the artistic value of a piece and not just the clock maker it was made by and his technical prowess.
In the history of clock making the artistic evolution of pendulum clocks has gone arm-in-arm with changing styles over the years.
It is also true that every country had its own style and tendencies, making its production easily identifiable. In Britain for example, the structure of the case tended to be linear, ormolu clocks were less popular, the relatively large faces were often in metal and the mechanisms frequently had sophisticated striking chimes. Clocks were seen essentially as precision instruments for telling the time and the case did not become more important than the actual clock, as it did in France.
The difference was due in part to the technical superiority of British clock makers when it came to regulatory mechanisms, as can be seen in their extensive production of very precise grandfather clocks.
In contrast customers were more interested in the decorative and artistic aspects of clocks in France. From the end of the 17th century onwards Paris was the world capital of the luxury trade, filling orders both from abroad and from its own influential élite, who revelled in ostentatious display and novelty. Clocks followed the artistic evolution of furniture; their cases faithfully reflected the styles and fashions of the times, while the forms and materials were the same as those used by cabinet makers. Clock makers, cabinet makers and bronze workers worked closely together, the latter in particular drawing their inspiration from the vast repertoire of images and allegories that showed historical, and more frequently mythological, figures and scenes.
One of the first problems encountered in any attempt to understand the history of clock making from an artistic point of view is the difficulty involved in recognising the various styles and their historical period. To newcomers to the field the fact that a pendulum is said to be in the Louis XIV or Empire style may not mean very much. French terminology is widely used to describe periods and style in the applied arts. In fact periods are often called by the name of the king on the French throne at the time or by important historical events (Directory, Empire, Restoration etc.) that took place in 18th- and 19th-century France. CLOCKS IN THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES
During the second half of the 17th and the whole of the 18th centuries clock making enjoyed a boom. Essentially based in London, Paris and Geneva, its evolution was favoured by various social and economic factors. In particular clock making in the 18th century flourished in the capitals of the two countries that dominated the economic scene of the time: Britain and France. But the general picture requires further detail. The growth of clock making was so closely linked to the economic and social histories of the countries in which it developed that it mirrored their ups and downs fairly precisely. British clock making enjoyed a period of supremacy from 1680 onwards thanks to the economic surge the country experienced under the Stuarts, while French clock makers had to wait until the economic revival in second quarter of the 18th century to achieve the same level of development. The clock makers’ art declined in the France of the late 17th century because of the rigid rules enforced by the corporations, the general economic crisis that characterised the end of Louis XIV’s reign and the large numbers of Huguenots who emigrated before and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Weakened French production corresponded to growth in rival European countries, particularly in Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who welcomed the hundreds of protestant refugees with open arms. Clock making was not the only luxury trade to benefit from the situation; similar developments also took place in the textile industry, in the goldsmiths’ trade, furniture making and the production of weaponry. The British government was not slow to appreciate the economic advantages to be derived from this influx of skilled craftsmen. Charles II made a statement promising refugees a warm welcome that was published in the London Gazette on 12 September 1681. In the years between 1690 and 1720 the clock makers who had settled in Britain competed ruthlessly with their erstwhile French colleagues. The French government was aware of the poor state of French clock making and attempted to set up a dedicated workshop with the help of the British clock maker Henry Sully. The venture was not successful, but despite this French clock making soon came into its own and enjoyed a period of maximum splendour thanks to orders from the French court and their foreign counterparts, to the new statutes adopted by the Paris clock making corporations in 1722 and not least, to a new generation of talented clock makers who were also able craftsmen.
Pendulum clocks as antiques do not merely bear mute witness to past history and culture, they are also valuable objects in their own right, and as such can make excellent investments. Those keeping an eye on the market have seen the value of quality clocks rocket over the last few years, particularly in comparison to other art objects. Investments in this field can undoubtedly be extremely fruitful, but there are also numerous pitfalls for the unwary, so a correct estimate of the real value of the pendulum is important. When you stop to admire a clock you have to consider a number of factors before judging its overall value: how old it is; its mechanism; the clock maker; how rare it is and how good an example it is of its particular style and age. All the pieces of the puzzle have to be in place to make an accurate assessment. As far as ormolu clocks go, apart from the factors mentioned above, the quality of the art work should also be evaluated, as should who the bronze worker was and how rare the subject is. Pendulum clocks in wooden cases should be checked to see whether they are signed or marked by a cabinet maker and who did the decorative ormolu work; what materials were used; how well it is made; the harmony of the overall design; how attractive the decorative details are and the condition the clock is in.
Obviously assessing the correct market value of a pendulum clock is by no means simple. For example a lacquered wooden clock in excellent conditions that has never been restored is worth more than a similar clock that has been restored and had its lacquer touched up, or a clock with a whole face is more valuable than one with breaks or cracks, or again two clocks with the same case, but one with a mechanism by a better-known, more prestigious clock maker and so on.
For all these reasons as auctioneers we evaluate each and every clock we sell extremely carefully from the points of view explained above before putting them up for auction to ensure our clients can make safe purchases at the right price.

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