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Victorian clocks are very easy to get, and for $15 to $18 there are often some splendid bargains going. They are often under glass domes, but it is worth buying a good example, even if it has lost its dome or got it badly damaged, for you may pick up another elsewhere. unfortunately, these domes occur in a variety of shapes and sizes and it may be some time before you can get one which exactly fits your clock. And if you don't put a dome over a clock which was meant to have one it means leaving the face and hands exposed to the dust of the atmosphere. (It is always possible to tell if an `undomed' clock was originally provided with one because there will be no glass door to the face, and no hinge where one could ever have been. If there is a glass door, leave the clock as it is and don't attempt to gild the lily by purchasing a dome for it. It simply wasn't designed to take one.)
Clocks of the nineteenth century vary much in quality. They range from the cheap spelter kind, often very badly cast, to the fine solid ormolu specimens which may fetch a hundred guineas. If you can get any really good gold paint, or better still like to try your skill with genuine gold leaf, it is often possible to work wonders with a grimy old clock in spelter, provided the design itself is a good one and worth a little time and trouble.
Some of them have attractive shepherds, resting on well cast sheaves of corn, or graceful figures of persons celebrated in French history, such as Cardinal Richelieu. A kind which can be obtained very cheaply was made in green veined marble, with metal mounts, surmounted by a tall winged angel carrying a sword, and usually bearing the legend `La Paix Armee,' a model of a French Exhibition figure by Gustave Moreau. The dial, which may be ornamented with a circlet of roses, will have Arabic and not Roman numerals as was invariable with the older clocks. This type, though some people seem to dislike it, is an excellent time-keeper and you can often pick them up for $6 or even less.
A lugubrious but solid and respectable-looking Victorian clock occurs in black marble with Corinthian columns flanking the face. The whole design is in imitation of a Greek temple; the `sculptured' pediment will be well or badly executed, according to the quality of the clock. The face is frequently of gilt metal and the regulator is marked `slow' and `fast' as opposed to the `R' and `A' of the ornamental French clocks of the time which signifies `retard' and `avance.'
These are the cheaper clocks. Do not pay a high price for one at a sale; they are extremely common, and by waiting your turn you can always get one at a reasonable figure. The Greek temple clocks can look quite effective, in the right surroundings, when flanked by a pair of `Marly' horses, those unmanageable-seeming animals that used to rear up on half the mantelpieces of Victorian England. They are accompanied by half-naked `tamers' and provided with gilt metal reins to increase the illusion of reality.
(The `Marly' design, as a matter of fact, is a very fine one in itself. There is a splendid ormolu pair in the Wallace Museum where they look extremely handsome. They occur in every imaginable quality, from the kind which you can pick up at the parish jumble sale for 40¢ to the expensive bronze specimens in the dealer's window which may be $go a pair. The design is in every case the same.)
There are also other `equestrian' pieces, in various qualities, which can be sometimes found and which make up a good supporting set for a Victorian clock. These may consist of a determined-looking mounted Crusader, charging violently at the beholder, with a lance on which you are certain to prick your finger every time you dust him, while his partner on the other horse wields a redoubtable and most murderous mediaeval battleaxe.
This thuggish pair of knights breathe the very spirit of Sir Walter Scott and a propos of this I must tell a story against a dealer of my acquaintance.
The enthusiasm of this dealer was greater, I fear, than his knowledge of history. He once whetted my appetite by telling me he had just bought a genuine `Louis' clock and that I could have it for $21. Unable to believe my ears, I hurried to his house with visions of a magnificent black and gold eighteenth-century specimen, which I was to bear in triumph away. My mortification can hardly be described when I beheld a large early Victorian object, heavily surmounted with a figure of Louis XI (of all people!) and other figures, and on the base `Quentin Durward par Sir W Scott.' And this was the genuine `Louis' clock! I pointed out with some asperity that there are only three `Louis' of any interest to the clock collector, the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth, and left as hurriedly as I had come.
So far we have dealt only with the clock of the ordinary Victorian parlour. Above this in the social scale comes the secondary-quality `ormolu timepiece,' often very graceful and with a melodious striking-bell. It may have a well executed female holding a dove as she sits on an elegant fauteuil or canape. Below both her and the clock itself may be an elaborate rococo understructure alive with flowers and scrolls and objects vaguely suggesting shells. The `ormolu' may be only some other metal skilfully treated to suggest it, or it may be genuine.
Very good examples can sometimes be picked up in certain districts for $15 or $ 18, though perhaps with some slight damage. If the case is perfect the clock itself may need attention, or vice versa. Real ormolu clocks are normally very expensive, but there is the occasional bargain to be met.
A most attractive ormolu type is that with painted porcelain panels inlaid into the metal, and with a painted porcelain dial. Specimens usually fetch good prices, but much will depend on the quality of the paintings. Some charming work was done by the Paris clockmakers of the Second Empire, or rather the decorative artists they employed, for of course the art of clockmaking has nothing to do with the decorating of the case. Delightful little pastoral scenes and figures a la Watteau and Fragonard sometimes adorn the front, both above and below the actual clock, while the dial may be prettily painted with wreaths of flowers in the manner of Sevres. There may be further painted porcelain or plaster `enrichments,' perhaps in Sevres blue which makes a lovely contrast to the gold of the metal basis. The better specimens can be found in sets, with matching vases of richly coloured and ormolu-mounted porcelain, all under separate glass domes.
Some of the clocks have genuine Sevres panels, but many imitations are to be found. A dealer I know paid $45 for one and afterwards secured $ 120 for it. It seemed to me that the panels were decidedly inferior, but the customer was apparently convinced that they were Sevres and was much pleased with his `bargain.'
You can also see, though not very often, even finer nineteenth-century clocks than any of those so far described. They are the `Buhl' bracket clocks, occasionally complete with original bracket. They are hardly `Victoriana' since they date from about 1820 to 1830 and are in the Louis Quinze tradition, of which they are in fact a late survival. They will normally be in black and gold with splendidly enamelled black and white dials in which a certain amount of blue may also be used. Often the finely-chased pendulum is visible through a glass opening in the front. Graceful and elaborate, they have a true air of Versailles about them and will normally command $240 to $300, the larger and more splendid examples fetching double this, or even more.
They are far from common and if you see one it is well worth considering purchase; they seldom stay in dealers' windows very long. (A genuine Louis XV clock in this manner would, naturally, fetch far more than the above prices. It might be nearer $3,000, though I have seen a few, in the coveted green and gold, offered at about $1,950. Pieces in this class, however, hardly concern us here.)