Review by Philip D. Zimmerman
Timeless: Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks

Frank L. Hohmann III, Kirtland H. Crump, Donald L. Fennimore, Morrison H. Heckscher, Martha H. Willoughby, and David F. Wood. Timeless: Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks. New York: Hohmann Hold­ings LLC, 2009. 376 pp.; 500+ color and bw illus., biographies, bibliography, index. $125.

Cooperative efforts of collectors, dealers, and museum professionals are integral to American decorative arts scholarship. Notable studies authored primarily by collectors include Benjamin A. Hewitt’s The Work of Many Hands and Thomas and Alice Kugelman’s Connecticut Valley Furniture.[1] Collector Frank L. Hohmann III pursues this tradition and passion as principal author of Timeless: Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks, a large-format book that focuses on one hundred examples. With contributions by Kirtland H. Crump, Donald L. Fennimore, Morrison H. Heckscher, Martha H. Willoughby, and David F. Wood, a high selling price, and widespread promotion, this ambitious book demands attention.

At its core, the book is a selection of one hundred “masterpiece” clocks that grace two-page spreads. Each entry, arranged alphabetically by state and then by maker, includes an overall photograph, a detail of the bonnet (typically an enlargement of the overall), images of each side of the movement, and occasionally other views. Regrettably, in many cases, the photographic reproduction of the woods and carving of the cases causes them to appear dark and murky, with a resultant loss of detail; the metal surfaces fare better. One paragraph of each entry describes the case, another the movement. Overall measurements, the width of the dial, and the present owner complete the information provided.

Unfortunately, the book lacks many categories of information that have become standard in most substantial catalogues, including a date or date range for the clock as well as a place of origin within the state, identification of secondary woods, structural information beyond what is evident in the photographs, original ownership histories when known, significant bibliographical references, and any interpretive narrative that discusses the distinguishing characteristics of the clock in question. Thus, the reader does not learn that the great Duncan Beard clock (no. 10) bears the chalk inscription “Made at Cantwell’s Bridge / Delaware / 1779,” nor that it incorporates a delightful rocking ship into the movement. One can only imagine—or research elsewhere—what other inscriptions and notable features lie unacknowledged in other entries. The japanned case of a William Claggett tall clock (no. 84), for example, looks off-color because of its extraordinary blue ground, rather than the customary black with red tortoiseshell coloring.[2]

No decorative arts form is richer in content than a clock. Timeless sets out to mine these riches with several essays on a variety of topics. The first, Hohmann’s “Clocks and Society,” focuses on the numbers of clocks made in colonial America. His argument uses evidence of clocks numbered by their makers as well as an expansive discussion based on population and wealth estimates, largely dependent upon Alice Hanson Jones’s study, Colonial American Wealth (1977), which analyzed probate and other evidence from 1774. Hohmann calculates that approximately 11,000 clocks were made by 1790, the end of the brass dial era, of which some 275 qualified as “masterpieces,” namely those that cost £20 or more. Along the way he opines that as many as half of these valued objects were lost by war—accounting for the paucity of southern examples—and conversion to white dials.

Donald Fennimore writes about the business of clockmaking. His essay entitled “A Causerie” (though not particularly “chatty” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary) builds on evidence in contemporaneous newspaper advertisements and brass catalogues to create a revealing account of regional and transatlantic supply networks for clock parts, bells, cast dial ornaments, and clock case hardware. Specialized services, such as engraving, were also exchanged among clockmakers. Clocks, therefore, incorporated the work of many, usually anonymous, artisans. By using evidence of common parts and designs, Fennimore suggests a “conceptual connection” (sidestepping the question of historically verifiable commercial ties) between makers John Wood Sr., of Philadelphia, and Jacob Graff, eighty miles west in Lebanon (pp. 38–39). This observation opens a much broader and more complex question: To what extent can detailed analysis of surviving clock parts yield persuasive evidence of actual supply paths? Applying Fennimore’s criteria to other clocks in the book brings into focus a Boston clock by Benjamin Bagnall (no. 19). Although lacking moldings around the winding holes, this Boston clock seems closer in concept to the Wood and Graff clocks than most of the other Philadelphia products, and so challenges Fennimore’s strategy.

David Wood’s essay, “Far from Equilibrium: Clocks and Clock Shops,” takes the reader through broader horological history, a sometimes tedious journey with other authors but saved here by Wood’s clear explanations and engaging prose that familiarize clock theory and mechanics. Who wouldn’t smile (or blanch) at his opening image of “the little pile of wheels” that results from detaching the front and back plates of a clock movement? Wood first details, and then knits together, the various clockmaking tasks into a concept of shops that, by and large, defies “autographic” identification or ready attribution to a particular maker. Examination of clock movements does not readily yield a profile of shop organization or structure. Innovation, division of labor, and other efficiencies evident in the English clockmaking trade did not necessarily apply in American circumstances, although the end products were similar. The definition of “clockmaker,” therefore, can range from an individual to a complex shop.

The wooden cases that house clock movements are the subject of Hohmann’s second essay. To better understand the variety of influences they reflect, Hohmann ventures back in time to ancient Greek and Roman architecture, Gothic cathedrals, and other European design sources. Evolutions of various American clock case feet, bases, waist doors, colonnettes, pediments, and finials each get brief and general discussion. Granted, this is a complex undertaking, but the author ignores much cogent furniture scholarship, thereby limiting the usefulness of his observations.

Rounding out the essays are two brief studies by Hohmann, one concerning the accuracy of timekeeping and the other presenting comparisons among ten Philadelphia clock movements. Back matter includes Martha Willoughby’s clearly written and informative biographies for each clockmaker represented in the book.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing to correct misspellings, occasional word jumbles, incomplete footnotes, and factual errors (e.g., the New York Bartholomew Barwell clock, no. 39, is japanned on oak, not pine).[3] Readers wishing to pursue footnote references will encounter several missing citations (e.g., clockmaker Thomas Harland’s advertisement for fusees on p. 42) or question the research based on frequent Internet citations to Wikipedia, to addresses no longer accessible, or to sites lacking authorship or searchable sources. At another level, thorough content editing might have addressed the occasional indifference to accurate historical context and reporting: the 1786 Lehman price list for Philadelphia furniture, used as evidence of wartime price inflation, is a meticulous copy of a 1772 prewar price list (p. 24). Reference to an 1829 advertisement to illuminate the eighteenth-century Anglo-American clockmaking trade discounts the passage of three decades, implying no change (p. 42). Those decades in particular witnessed some of the most significant mass-production innovations and subsequent restructuring ever known in the American clock industry.

Discerning readers will want to know—and casual readers should be able to learn—that some clocks have substantial restorations. The finials, cartouche, and all carved ornament except the central shell in the pediment of the Edward Duffield clock at Winterthur (no. 46) are restorations. The Thomas Walker clock at Colonial Williamsburg (no. 98) has a new central plinth flanked by consoles, new brass finials, and new feet.[4] Such issues of condition are not mere connoisseurship details. Physical attributes are the basis of object evaluation, whether for aesthetic or historical purposes. The author emphasizes this connection when he states, “the use of idiosyncratic design elements, such as the foliate center finials of John Janvier seen on Duncan Beard cases, can also provide maker identification” (p. 67). Regrettably, the example he uses, as well as all other foliate finials of that type, are recent restorations extrapolated from tiny fragments that remain on another clock.[5]

Reviews should not evaluate on the basis of material not in a book, but virtually no mention is made of dial engraving, which surely elevates certain clocks to masterpiece status. Many dials exhibit luxurious foliation or bright cutting that rivals silver engraving. A particularly charming example is that of Reuben Ingraham of Plainfield, Connecticut (no. 8), who filled the sheet-brass dial with enthusiastic ornament, a naïve house, images of the four seasons in the spandrels, and a long, untranscribed inscription. The clock made by John Heilig of Germantown, Pennsylvania (no. 56), incorporates an oval portrait of General George Washington flanked by cannons and drums into the fully engraved dial. The particular pose is copied from an engraving from the 1789 edition of Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book, published in nearby Philadelphia.

As a book of masterpieces, Timeless brings to view a wide assortment of fascinating clocks, ranging from technical marvels capable of running for thirty-five days, to musical and orrery clocks, to examples of extraordinary furniture-making skills. The many illustrations accompanying each work celebrate American craft and achievement. The book ably reacquaints the reader with old friends as well as introducing new ones.

Philip D. Zimmerman
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

American Furniture 2009

  • [1]

    Benjamin A. Hewitt, Patricia E. Kane, and Gerald W. R. Ward, The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America, 1790–1820 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982); Thomas P. Kugelman and Alice K. Kugelman, with Robert Lionetti et al., Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750–1800 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 2005). Countless essays and other contributions by collectors form a substantial body of scholarship.

  • [2]

    Alyce L. Perry, “The Best ‘Blew,’” Antiques 175, no. 5 (May 2009): 125–27.

  • [3]

    Helen Comstock, American Furniture: Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Century Styles (New York: Viking Press, 1962), no. 188; V. Isabelle Miller, Furniture by New York Cabinetmakers, 1650 to 1860 (New York: Museum of the City of New York, 1956), no. 69.

  • [4]

    The entry also omits attribution of the case to Fredericksburg and to maker James Allan. Tara Gleason Chicirda, “The Furniture of Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1740–1820,” in American Furniture 2006, edited by Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, Wis.: Chipstone Foundation, 2006), pp. 125–26, fig. 51.

  • [5]

    Philip D. Zimmerman, Delaware Clocks (Dover, Del.: Biggs Museum, 2006), p. 37.