IN ‘every room the encouragement given by his Majesty to ingenious constructors of time-pieces is apparent,’ wrote an anonymous visitor to Buckingham House in 1802. Among the timepieces on display in George III’s house at the turn of the 19th century that caught the eye of our unnamed commentator was an exceptional burr-walnut veneered and gilt-brass mounted longcase clock by leading English clockmaker Thomas Tompion. It had been made a century earlier for Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, and stood first in the State Bedchamber at Kensington Palace.
Technically ingenious—in addition to the time, it showed days of the month, signs of the zodiac and the position of the Sun, and ran for 390 days on a single winding— Tompion’s clock is also an extraordinarily handsome object, one of only about 650 clocks made during the 40-year lifespan of the workshop opened by the Bedfordshire blacksmith’s son near Fleet Street, in 1671. It reminds us, as dealer in antique clocks Tobias Birch explains, that the finest examples of the art represent ‘a collaboration between clockmakers, cabinetmakers and engravers to produce articles of mechanical excellence and great beauty’.
This collaboration reached its apogee in longcase clocks such as that made by Tompion for Prince George. Widely known as grandfather clocks, after Henry Clay Work published the popular song Grandfather’s Clock in 1876, such clocks (albeit less rarefied) were once a staple of British interiors: tall and freestanding, the case housing a swinging pendulum movement and hanging weights that each fulfil distinct functions, for example, the clock’s chime or hour strike.
These are the clocks that previously stood sentinel in halls and studies across the country, their distinctive sounds as much a part of a house’s life as birdsong beyond the windows and mice behind the wainscot, like the clock on the half landing in front of which Beatrix Potter painted an anxious Tabitha Twitchit in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or the clock that, on its 13th strike, lures Tom into a magical enclave in Philippa Pearce’s classic children’s novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.
For leading dealer Howard Walwyn, the disappearance of the longcase clock from so many British homes is cause for regret: ‘These clocks are a wonderful living presence in a house, their gentle tick in a room soothing and utterly charming.’ Mr Walwyn points to the diversity of longcase clocks manufactured in Britain between the last quarter of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century, ‘the fantastic variety in size, proportion, materials used, the architectural perfection or otherwise of the case’.
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