A Thumbnail Sketch of Antique French Clocks
Long before the first colonists arrived on the North American shores, French clockmakers were fashioning elegant timepieces. In the United States, clockmaking didn’t come into prominence until around 1840 because the fledgling country lacked the necessary technology. But European countries had both the materials and the skilled craftsmen to create intricate clocks for royalty, nobility and the very wealthy.
French Clocks under Louis the Fourteenth
France was the most powerful country in Europe during the reign of King Louis the Fourteenth, which lasted from 1643 until 1715. King Louis the Fourteenth, also called the Sun King, is well-known for constructing the opulent Palace of Versailles and Louis the Fourteenth styling is ornate and gilded. So it makes sense that French clocks of this time period featured rich ormolu (a gilt-bronze) decoration. Many clocks of the period utilized boulle (also called buhl) inlay. Instead of traditional inlaid wood veneers, these clocks used tortoiseshell in combination with brass, pewter, porcelain or ivory.
A competing French clock style of the period was called religieuse which featured rectangular ebony veneer over oak cases. Other religieuse clocks followed the style of tortoiseshell cases with brass or pewter inlay with ormolu mounts. Many of these clocks had a domed or an arched top, perhaps influenced by the English bracket clocks. Generally religieuse clocks had a rectangular movement suspended on the back of a velvet-covered dial. These clocks typically had a crown wheel and verge escapement with a short pendulum, which was suspended on a silk thread.
The Regency period in France lasted from 1715 until 1723. Clocks with a balloon shape became popular; these clocks were placed on a wall bracket. These clocks were executed in carved wood or in marquetry and bronze. During this time longcase clocks remained popular as well. Rather than the long pendulum seen on English clocks of the period, and later on early American longcase clocks, French longcase clocks instead resembled a table clock perched on an elaborate stand.
French Clocks under Louis the Sixteenth
Louis the Sixteenth reigned from 1750 until 1790 and some consider this the greatest period for French clocks. During this time a large number of regulators in long cases were made. These cases were much less ornate than previous French styles in clocks. These clocks featured glass doors to cover the pendulum and a bronze headdress on top.
During this period table clocks still were made of ormolu or marble or a mix of both. This was the period when the statuary in the form of bronze or gilded figures became the focal point of clock decoration which many clock collectors consider to be the essence of French clocks. Classical Greek and Roman figures were a favorite theme as well as cherubs; all figures were cast in full detail front and back. Egyptian figures decorated clocks after Napoleon’s Egyptian exploits in the 1800’s.
Other clocks of the period were suspended on pillars where the pendulum hung in full view between the pillars. Often the pendulum was in the shape of a sunburst or a lyre. Another unusual clock design of the period was the urn or vase shaped clock. These novelty clocks were unique in that the time was indicated by moving bands of numerals that showed the hour and the minute. Another form of this clock style had a standing figure that held a ball; the band of numerals turned around this ball.
The Empire Period
The empire period lasted from 1799 until 1815. French clocks of this period continued the traditions that had been established earlier. Ormolu clocks remained popular. Classical Greek and Roman figures graced many a table clock while vases and lyres were a frequently used ornamentation as well. Clocks that were suspended on pillars with an open pendulum continued to be made. Wall regulators have been a favorite clock style across many countries and cultures and remained so in France as well. At this time some intricate clocks, automatons and astronomical movements were being produced by specialty clockmakers for wealthy patrons.
At the same time that American clockmaking was coming unto its own, French clocks began to see a revival in interest in Gothic styling with clock cases taking a shape similar to Gothic cathedrals. During this time period, three-dimensional animated scene clocks were introduced.
There were also picture frame animated clocks. For this clock, a real gilt picture frame was used with a background of green, blue or red velvet. The clock dial was set on the velvet background with brass spandrels. Automata frequently appeared in the picture; favorite themes were a windmill with turning blades, blacksmith at a forge, trains and sailing ships. These designs were particularly popular from 1850 to 1870.
While the figures were usually made of cardboard, sometimes they were made of iron. Some picture frame clocks also featured a music box.
It’s believed that French clockmakers introduced the skeleton clock around 1750. A skeleton clock doesn’t really have a case and the clock movement is designed with a minimum number of parts; hence, the resulting timepiece is a mere skeleton of a typical clock. At the London Great Exhibition of 1851, the displays included a miniature French skeleton clock that had a movement only 6 ½ inches high on a wooden base and enclosed in a glass dome. These French clocks were a hit of the show and sold well.
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