Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Times past: antique clocks to hold a candle to

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Lantern clock: Simple brass clock introduced circa 1600 and the most common type of domestic clock throughout the 17th century. So called because its posted-frame case housing the movement, has opening side panels similar to those in early candle-powered lamps. Also called Cromwellian clocks, they have a bell on top surrounded by a fretwork gallery, a weight to make the thing tick and a short bob pendulum. Sadly most found today have been converted years ago to spring-driven movements and, the purists would say, ruined. Less finicky collectors would regard this as part of the clock's history and accept it as inevitable.
Grandma phoned last week to tell us how, in the middle of the night, she woke up and couldn't see the time on her alarm clock (she's in her nineties). Was there anything we could do about it? We found the answer at a car boot sale that weekend. For the grand outlay of £2, we snapped up a 1950s vintage electric alarm clock with illuminated red numerals the size of a small neon street sign. Job done.

Things would have been different in 1690, the date of manufacture of another bargain clock we snapped up. A simple, but in its own way beautiful antique alarum lantern clock, it had been pooh-poohed by the huddle of dealers at our local Saturday village hall auction.

They were convinced it was modern. After all, how else could such a little gem turn up in this forgotten saleroom in the middle of nowhere? I have no idea, but the fact of the matter was it was as right as ninepence, as confirmed by a clock expert who checked it out and cleaned it for us so that we could have it running without fear of damage to its movement.

Convinced all along that it was right, we paid £100 for it in those cavalier days when we were still learning about antiques. A £100 mistake would have been less upsetting than it might be today when we’re supposed to know what we’re doing. Now part of our pension fund, we reckon we could add a least a nought to its value.

Ironically, but perhaps understandably, dealers and collectors tend to shy away from buying lantern clocks, not because they are particularly complicated or troublesome, but rather because of their reputation as being the target for all sorts of "restoration" over the centuries.

Lantern clock production lasted for barely 150 years and in that time, they were a particularly common given that they were made entirely by hand and were thus expensive. Robust but inherently crude in their manufacture, the earliest examples had a balance wheel or sometimes verge escapement that needed winding a least every 12 hours and sometimes every eight.

So the first thing that happened was that movements were changed to anchor escapements capable of running for 30 hours. Similarly, both these movements were driven by weights: one to power the going train (to make it tick) the other striking train. When the eight-day duration spring balance movement was developed, clocks were updated again and the weights discarded.

Some lantern clocks, such as our own, were fitted with an alarm mechanism visible on the centre of the dial and most, but not all, did not chime the hour. However, as a clock was passed down through the generations of a family, requirements changed and often the alarm mechanism was discarded and sometimes ham-fisted attempts were made to modify the movement to either make it chime or stop it if the noise was too loud.

Almost all genuine lantern clocks have just one hand, indicating the hours, half hours and quarters -- in other words making the clock accurate up to 15 minutes either way. So, in another modification clockmakers were asked to add the necessary mechanism to allow the movement to run two hands and thus give greater precision. However, these modifications are not common. Instead, the two-handed lantern clock is likely to be a modern reproduction, Smith's making a particularly attractive example in the 1940s.

It's amazing to consider that a clock made 300 years ago is still capable of running today. This was made possible in part by the addition of brass doors to either side of the clock movement. These were originally intended to keep out the dust, of which there was a great deal when even the best homes used straw on the floors.

Attitudes differ on whether this affects value

The doors pivot on two lugs in holes in the top and bottom plate of the clock but easily come unhinged and over time often become lost. So, most clocks coming onto the market today have either lost one or both doors or else have had them replaced. It is often difficult to tell the difference. Attitudes differ on whether this affects value and is really down to personal choice, but the purist would be disappointed by modern replacements.

One of the most attractive features of a lantern clock are the pierced decorative frets which sit immediately below the bell above the dial at the front and on each side. These give the clock its character and are decorated with such motifs as a lion and a unicorn holding a shield; sea serpents; Latin inscriptions and stylised flowers and foliage. They are also often the area chosen by the maker to inscribe his name and place of origin.

They too are held in place by lugs and lost frets are all too common. Similarly, fashions change and over the passage of time, owners will either have discarded the frets or replaced them with new, more stylish examples. Although it is difficult to tell the difference, old replacements are considered more acceptable than new ones, and a clock with no frets looks distinctly odd. Modern replacements can be obtained but whether such a clock should be purchased in the first place is again a matter of personal taste.

Although it is capable of being used, we choose not to have our clock running on the basis that something as old as it is will ultimately wear out. Again this is down to personal taste, but in these days of radio time checks, digital clocks on video recorders, atomic clock synchronisers on computers and wristwatches accurate up to so little that it doesn't matter, it's far from necessary.

But none of the modern timekeepers looks I antything like at home with our little group of antique oak furniture, so that's how it will stay.

Pictures show, top: A lantern clock by Thomas Creed, London, circa 1670. The pointed protrusion on the right rear of the dial is the anchor-shaped pendulum which should be concealed by a decorated brass cover now missing. The holes where it was fixed are just visible behind the slot in the door

Below, left: This good quality German lantern clock was made in the late 19th or early 20th century and as such is a modern reproduction of the 17th century original. The giveaway is the twin winding holes on the dial, for going train and strike train, and the two hands. It runs for eight days, something no original lantern clock could manage

Right: A lantern clock by Thomas Knifton dating from about 1650. It has lost its brass side panels and the frets, although nicely cut, appear to be later replacements

modern knifton



Anonymous Mike said...

I am currently buying 2 Smiths repro Lantern Clocks, but were I able to afford an original, I would consider replacement side-pieces a minor thing and would rather have them. I have a number of old clocks in different styles, some work, some don`t. It does not matter. It is enough that I love and cherish them for what they are. After many quartz years, I now wear a mechanical watch and joke that I now keep approximate time!

27 April 2009 at 16:46  

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