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Old Bracket Clocks
( Originally Published 1913 )
The gilt or marble horrors which people buy to place upon their mantelpieces as clocks ! Though honest copies of eighteenth-century English bracket clocks can be had for the same money, and some of the originals can be bought for £10.
The works of old bracket clocks have been so often renewed that most of them are capital timekeepers still, and to own one is utilitarian as well as an item of collecting. I should hardly advise a collector to set himself the task of obtaining clocks in which the works are all original and intact. Only a clockmaker of great expertness can be sure about original insides. Cases can tell us a good deal about clocks which bear no date or name of maker. I treasure a certain anonymous bracket clock because the shape of the mahogany case at the top shows the " ChippendaleChinese " influence, by somewhat resembling the roof of a low pagoda. But the earliest, and, therefore, the most desirable, old bracket clocks belong to a date considerably prior to Chippendale's, which was ciyca 1760: ; and I do not say that you can pick up a bracket clock made in 1690 for £10.
Data Indicating Dates.-In my " A B C About Collecting " I have mentioned data which indicate the age of a grandfather clock ; let me try to do something of the kind for the clocks now under notice. If you examine the earliest wood-cased bracket clocks, you find a plain, square case of walnut, ebony, or mahogany, flat at the top, with a plain metal handle set upon it-in that respect resembling what are called carriage-clocks to-day. The presence of the handle shows that these clocks used to be carried from room to room, ponderous for that purpose as they may seem to us now. These plain, square cases belong to the middle part of the latter half of the seventeenth century.
During the last quarter of the seventeenth centuryabout 1680, say-the top ceased to be plain and flat: a kind of " dome " in " basket-work " metal rose from it, and the handle, itself becoming ornamented, rose from that. Sometimes this " dome " was doubled, one edifice of open-work metal arising from another, with the handle at top of all.
About the year 1700 the " bell-top " for these clocks was adopted in place of the " dome " ; a super-edifice of wood, not very aptly described as a bell. It is really an incurving plinth of wood rising from the flat, real top of the case like an oblong pedestal for the support of a statuette ; but what it really supported was, at first, the metal handle, and, later on, when such handles had been done away with, a small wooden or metal ornament shaped like a vase or urn. A " bell-top " does not necessarily indicate the period Of 1700-1720, however, for bell-tops were popular till nearly the end of the eighteenth century.
If the metal or inlay " ornament " on a case be rather overdone, it suggests lateness of period. The early clocks have square dials; the arch-dial came later. The " back-plates," to which the works were screwed in the early clocks, are elaborately engraved, with flourishes or other decorations, and generally show the maker's name. Clocks with engraved back-plates were fitted with glass back-doors to display the ornament; when ornamenting the back-plate fell into disuse, the backdoors began to be wholly of wood.
The ornamentation of the dials tells something about date. The dial is usually of brass, with the hours numbered in Roman figures on a silvered circle. The spandrels, or corners of the dial outside the hour-circle, were filled in with designs in cast brass ; the earliest and simplest were cast after Grinling Gibbons' design of two cherubs; the later spandrels are the more elaborate. If chasing tools have obviously worked, upon the brass casting, that usually indicates earliness.
Late Eighteenth-Century Cases.-About the year 1760 the " bell-top " used to be in invariable use, and on some clocks was replaced by one of several other shapes of top. There was the " broken arch," a bad name for a simple segment of a circle planted on the real flat top, not quite so wide as the dial. The " balloon " shape is more readily recognised, when you see it in a clock with a waist and bulging shoulders, like an armless dummy at a dressmaker's. The " lancet " top is shaped like the top of a Gothic lancet window, two simple curves meeting in a point. Brass inlay indicates the " Adam " or " Empire Sheraton " influence and date. Very big bracket-clocks, in ebonised wood with brass edgings, are likely to belong to the early nineteenth century. Very large bracket clocks in mahogany, heavily carved and moulded, but without inlay, and rather resembling sarcophagi, are very late Georgian.