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Long Case And Bracket Clocks


The term `grandfather clock' dies hard, but no-one seems very sure about its origin. It appears to be not much more than a century old, but it has almost certainly more than another century in front of it. Like `Dresden,' which will have a long struggle before it allows itself to be ousted finally by `Meissen,' so `grandfather' is not going to go under easily to the more correct term `long case.' However, `long case' is the title which all good horologists employ and it will be decorous for you to use it, at least occasionally.

For some reason, long case clocks are quite easy to get. They are absurdly cheap unless they are of very fine or rare quality, and anyone who wants a small collection of them can have it, I should say, for about the cost of a fortnight at the sea-side. The explanation is probably twofold. First, they are `out of fashion' in the antique world of the present moment, and fashions control prices and demand to an extraordinary degree. Second, there were so many of them made, and since they are not objects liable to much damage this means that vast numbers of them are still to be found.

The diminishing supply of some kinds of antique, such as porcelain, is partly due to the constant loss by breakage to which they are liable. But long case clocks can stand a great deal of hard use; hence they are legion still, mostly in fair condition. And yet, in spite of their commonness and cheapness, they are among the most satisfying of all antiques. A pleasant specimen that has been ticking peacefully since about 1720 is surely a gracious adornment to any room or entrance hall. If you have a suitable staircase it will make a lovely enrichment to a landing or half=way turn.

Generally, as might be expected, the eighteenth-century specimens are much dearer than those of the Victorian age. The `cottage' type in Victorian oak case, which the country clockmakers turned out in hundreds, will not fetch much at a sale. Sometimes they go for as little as $3, though a low price like this will mean that they are not in working order. Above this in the price scale comes the Victorian example which does work, sometimes with a brass dial with cherubs in the spandrels. This kind may fetch $21 to $24.

After this there seems to be a jump into the $50 to $6o group, and then, for about $100, you can sometimes secure a genuine eighteenth-century specimen, perhaps with a fine old dial with well executed brasswork and a walnut-veneered case.

Above this prices will soar rapidly as the `clock collectors' examples' are reached. In the top class of all will be clocks by the famous makers which will be well into the four figure group.

The long case clock is of no great antiquity and the earliest known specimens date from about 166o. One of the first famous makers was Fromanteel and some examples of his work have been dated at about 1665.

Some of the earliest long case clocks had only one hand, and consequently there may be no minute numerals on the dial. But it does not do to date a clock too certainly by its dial and working, for they may have been substituted for the originals at a later date. A great deal of re-arrangement of the older long case clocks has gone on during the intervening centuries, and both cases and dials frequently show signs of having been tampered with. A dial which was made for a one-handed movement, however, will reveal its age by having no minute numbers since obviously they would have been useless.

Remarkable mechanical feats were introduced quite early into the long case clock. Edward East, for instance, who was working in London in the 1670s, constructed clocks of a month's duration and with a time-ring outside the hourcircle which made a complete revolution once a year. (He also made `night clocks' which contained an ingenious illuminating device for showing the time during hours of darkness. It may have been one of these which Pepys described as having seen in the private apartments of Queen Henrietta Maria at Whitehall.)

The earliest dials of long case clocks were comparatively small, and of the same width as the case. They were usually ten inches in diameter, but towards the end of the seventeenth century twelve-inch dials began to be introduced, and the clocks themselves became taller. This increase of height has been attributed to the new style of room construction which became fashionable in the reign of Queen Anne. Lofty, light rooms began to replace the old low, dark-panelled chambers of the seventeenth century, and clocks appear to have been fashioned to suit their taller walls. With the increase in size of dial the hands became more elaborate and, about 1720, the arch-dial became fashionable. This is an important feature in the dating of a long case clock, though arch-dials had been employed a little earlier, a famous and very early example being the beautiful clock by Tompion in the Pump Room at Bath, which dates from 1709.

Marquetry decoration on the front of the case, which was a feature of the earlier clocks, tended to go out of fashion in the eighteenth century. It is thus very unusual for a clock to have both arch-dial and marquetry, though a little might still be used. However, a few examples are known, and nothing more beautiful can be imagined than a fine example of about 1720 in which the two fashions are to be seen together.

Some magnificent work in marquetry (usually in floral panels, but sometimes in an `all over' design) had been done by the earlier clock-case makers. The case might be of oak with veneered walnut and the marquetry inlaid on both the clock door and the plinth. The celebrated Daniel Quare produced some beautiful clocks in this fashion. They had an additional miniature dial in the arch showing the days of the month and a device for turning the strike mechanism on or off. In the later eighteenth century the device known as `moonwork' began to appear in the space above the archdial. This was a mechanism which indicated the phases of the moon, usually with an ornamental moon-face and stars as decoration.

The modest collector is unlikely to get any examples of the work of these master clockmakers, which fetch very high prices indeed in the sale-rooms. But many of the country clockmen produced beautiful work and perhaps of all departments of antique collecting the hunt for long case clocks is the easiest, provided you are not looking for specimens of the really famous artists. I bought a handsome example of a 1720 walnut-veneer arch-dial clock a year or so ago for only $60. It has a lovely dial which has every appearance of being the original, with some excellently worked brass cherubs in the spandrels and a single marquetry shell-motif on the case door.

This may have been an exceptional bargain and the price for such a clock might well be somewhat higher now. But it is certainly still possible to get good historical specimens at reasonable prices, and they are very reasonable indeed when measured against prices in other departments of the antique market.

Another type of eighteenth-century long case clock which may perhaps come your way is the lacquered clock. Lacquer had been used in the late seventeenth century, but specimens do not normally date from before the reign of Queen Anne. Even these will tend to be sought after and consequently expensive. But some very lovely and colourful examples, more modestly priced, date from the Georgian era. Chinese style decoration was often used, the ground colours being sometimes red or blue or black and the design carried out in gold. Extremely gorgeous clocks with this form of `chinoiserie' can be seen, with gilded finials and elaborate superstructures over the hood. Properly placed, they have a most sumptuous appearance and are wonderfully effective with good pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain on a nearby shelf or table.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century long case clocks became severer in style. Walnut went out of fashion as a basic material and mahogany, after about 1760, came into its own. Some of the clocks of the 1780s and 1790s have a majestic simplicity of design, though occasional rather ugly and top-heavy specimens, clearly showing `Gothic' influences, have survived.

They have an historical interest and seem to appeal intensely to some collectors, but I am not one of them. When the nineteenth century is reached a degeneration has undoubtedly set in, though good clocks were still produced, especially during the Regency. The Victorian `Grandfather Clock,' which is the sort most likely to meet you at a house sale, has a certain cumbrousness which marks it out from its graceful eighteenth-century ancestors. A number of these Victorian pieces have little painted scenes in the spandrels of the dials. Occasionally these paintings have a naive charm. More often they are execrably bad and give the impression of having been done by the clockmaker's infants. Frequently the dial is much worn and the case either worm-eaten or tottery. It is specimens of this kind which usually go for about $3.50.

Clearly there is much to be learned from a study of the different types of `grandfather clock.' There are a number of illustrated works on clock history which give examples of the various fashions from which you can approximately date any specimen which interests you. On no account pay a high price for one unless you are satisfied it is by a reputable maker. There are lists of these in the bigger books on the subject, and, if you can, buy from a dealer who makes a special feature of clocks. Better still buy from an actual clockmaker and you will have a guarantee that it is in good working order. Clocks purchased at a sale naturally carry no such guarantee, and you may have difficulty, as well as expense, in getting them put to rights.

The `unfashionableness' of long case clocks at the present time is curious, for its seems to have had a forerunner in the middle of the eighteenth century. Between 1740 and 1760 they were also quite out of fashion, and this explains why sometimes very fine specimens turn up in quite lowly country cottages. Clearly they had been given away or sold off cheaply to any villagers who took a fancy to them. They were no longer fashionable furniture for the `quality.'

But the `grandfather' made a definite, if hardly spectacular, come-back, and in the latter years of the eighteenth century was again firmly established in aristocratic favour. But as a result of this `lapse' between 174o and I 76o the dream of most antique collectors to find neglected antiques in out of the way country corners is more likely to come true with early long case clocks than with anything else.


The clocks usually styled in auctioneers' catalogues `bracket clocks' are not so easy to acquire as their long case companions. Good examples will be keenly sought after, and anything by a well-known maker will require a very long purse to buy. The famous names of Fromanteel, East, Tompion, Quare and Knibb are found on `bracket' as well as long case clocks; a fine specimen of a `Tompion' may fetch as much as $i2,000.

The term `bracket' is not really satisfactory, and `mantel' or `table' clock is preferred for them by many collectors, since they do not seem to have been used much on brackets. At all events, the English variety do not, though some very gorgeous French clocks which were so displayed can sometimes be found in the better dealers' shops. These are often the handsome black and gold `Buhl' timepieces, the sort which can be studied at their best in the Wallace Museum.Old English bracket clocks are in most cases quite small, between about eleven and eighteen inches high. The earlier examples, of the late seventeenth century, are square-shaped; later they tend to grow tall in proportion to width. Finally they assume arch-top and other forms, such as the `balloon shape' of the period 1790-1800.

Even the earliest clocks of these three groups are very fully developed pieces of mechanism. There are some Fromanteel examples, of about 1695, which are not only eight-day but also striking and alarm clocks, with a `grande sonnerie' arrangement on five bells.

(`Grande sonnerie' is the device for repeating the hour at every quarter as well as giving the quarters themselves, so that in effect the clock will give the correct time every fifteen minutes. This was specially useful during the night when it was not so easy as now to get a light when you wished to know the time. But it can be a nuisance if not really wanted, unless there is a device for silencing the chime.)

As with the long case clocks of the period, these early bracket clocks have beautiful chased spandrels, usually cherub-headed, and the woodwork is magnificent. Often there will be gilt mounts, and perhaps a veneer of tortoiseshell to decorate the case, which may be oak or possibly veneered ebony. Fine quality engraving appears sometimes, not only on the dial but on the back-plate, and there are early examples which have a dial-opening to indicate the day of the month. Excellently worked carrying-handles are usual but not invariable.

This type of clock, of course, is driven by a spring and not by weights and does not, generally speaking, keep time with quite the accuracy of the long case variety. Anchor escapement was applied at a rather later date; specimens of it are rare before 171 o. An early example by Fromanteel and Clarke has, in addition to the main dial, four subsidiaries for controlling the speed and the use of the strike. It is decorated on the top with a kind of rectangular dome to which the term `basket' is applied, and a number of very beautiful `basket topped' clocks have survived.

Other kinds have a pediment with miniature turned columns for supports, or a portico-shaped case with attractive little gilded finials. There were also illuminating devices whereby a small light would indicate the time on a circle of slowly rotating numbers which appeared hour by hour in a special aperture above the chapter ring.

The Tompion bracket clocks are distinguished by an elegant simplicity of form, characteristically English, and are decorated with exquisitely restrained taste. `Tompion' clocks have become a legend in the Antique world and occupy the same place as Faberge pieces do in the department of jewellery. Your chances of ever getting a Tompion for your collection are now so remote that it would be better to dismiss the possibility from your mind. You can see, however, some fine examples of Tompion's work in the museums, a magnificent one being in the Cecil Higgins Museum at Bedford.

Bracket clocks by Joseph Knibb are almost equally esteemed with those of Tompion. They too have a fine simplicity of appearance, but with richly engraved backplates. Sometimes these engravings are of figures, for instance Death and Father Time, besides a conventional design of flowers.

The second group of these clocks, that of the earlier eighteenth century, has a taller case, with an arch-dial and an altogether more elaborate look. Some of Daniel Quare's work had certainly been elaborate and almost French in appearance, with a curved band over the dial and a superstructure terminating in a finial or `spire.' But it is not until the early Georgian era that bracket clocks generally assume a really sumptuous look. Specimens from about 174o have survived with red tortoiseshell veneer and solid silver mounts, the dial itself silvered, and with the most involved mechanism imaginable. Some have a five or six tune musical arrangement on a dozen different bells besides the usual quarter chimes.

Richly lacquered cases and elegantly gilded spires are other features of these later clocks, and some of them have a 'strikesilent' mechanism on a small dial in the arch of the main one. The last group reverts to a plainer type. This is the mahogany kind, from about 178o onwards. The clock cases are arched, often semi-circular following the line of the dial, and decoration is reduced to a minimum. A `balloon' shape is also found, the case having a graceful tapering waist, surmounted by the circle of the dial. These clocks, often of satinwood, continued to be made throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

A somewhat similar type to the bracket is the brass `lantern' clock, but genuine examples are rare and expensive. The term `bracket' is much more correctly applied to these than the others, since they do seem to have been frequently provided with brackets, but they are always known as `lantern' clocks owing to their shape.

Early examples, dating from about 163o, have survived, some by Ahasuerus Fromanteel; they are one-handed and almost always of 30-hour duration.

The lantern clock is a very attractive object and modern imitations are legion, but it is not likely that a genuine seventeenth-century specimen will come your way. With the introduction of the Bracket Clock the `lantern' died out; probably not many were made after about 1690.


In making a collection of clocks there are a few points worth remembering. For instance, accurate time-keeping is certainly a very good quality to hope for, but do not be too much influenced by it. An Antique Clock is to be valued more for its beauty than for mechanical precision. And though it is stretching the point too far, as I have known some collectors to do, to say that `they don't care whether an old clock goes or not,' you should never neglect a fine specimen because it doesn't appear to be in working order. You would expect a price-adjustment, naturally, but the artistic quality of the clock is the most important consideration. Besides, it is absurd to want every clock in a collection to be ticking and chiming accurately if you have, say, a dozen or more in one room. The din at midday or midnight with a dozen clocks all striking twelve! 144 strokes to listen to, twice every day, to say nothing of the noise at ten or eleven, which will be nearly as bad!

Winding also (a double business with all striking clocks) will begin to be irksome if all your clocks are working and there are twenty-four separate processes to be gone through every time. Of course, if you are a really exclusive Clock Collector, such mundane trifles will not even enter your mind. Your clocks will be your darlings and you will not even risk a holiday away from them for fear they should run down. (Running down, by the way, is certainly not good for a clock while its reverse, over winding, is probably responsible for 50 per cent of clock stoppages. Be particularly careful not to wind up a weight-driven clock violently; you may break the gut-line so that the weights fall to the bottom, thus damaging the case.)

But for the general collector, who merely wants some beautiful specimens disposed around the house, decorative qualities should come first. As long as at least one clock in each room is a good time-keeper surely that is enough!

However, I cannot expect the ardent clock devotee to agree with me on this, and him I will leave to his menage of grande and petite sonnerie, happy in his world of escapements, bob pendulums and bolt-and-shutter maintenances.

In examining a long case clock, do not be prejudiced by the fact that a beautiful example may turn out to have only a veneer of walnut and not the solid wood. Walnut was not only difficult to obtain in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries but its qualities were not really known well enough for the clockmakers to rely on it. They tended, therefore, to use a basis of the traditional oak, with a veneer of walnut for effect, and some of the finest examples are made in this way.

Consequently, walnut-veneer does not in the least imply that the clock is a `sham,' or even a reconstruction.The quality of the brass spandrels in the dial is a most important point in judging the final effect of a clock. One of the poorest features of the modern reproductions is the inferior chasing of the 'cherub-heads,' whereas in the genuine old dials the chasing will be meticulously done, every detail standing out beautifully and executed with loving care.

Other points to look for are fine and elegant design in the hands, a narrow chapter ring and a not too unwieldy bulk in the whole composition. There are some very lofty old specimens, stretching up to nine feet and more, but, however excellent they are, they will be out of proportion for the ordinary rooms of today.

Lastly, if you have trouble with a clock which was obviously going well at the sale where you bought it, remember that the actual level on which it stands may need adjusting. Some clocks seem to need to be tipped a little forwards, others tipped back. Often a few minutes of experiment with small wedges of wood is all that is needed. Clocks are temperamental, and perhaps that is part of their charm.

I knew a collector who claimed that one of his clocks would only go when placed on a yellow cushion; any other colour apparently stopped it at once!

None of mine are as temperamental as that, but several are certainly most particular about their levels. Once they have established themselves in a suitable position, I find it is well not to disturb them.

So think out carefully where a new acquisition to your collection will look its best, and having chosen its bed for it allow it to lie there in peace.