Tall Case Clocks

April 3, 2012
 KOAR 2004.1.3

KOAR 2004.1.3

Something about the faces of tall case clocks, with moons serenely waxing and waning above world maps or ships sailing out to sea under windy clouds aloft, is as endlessly fascinating as the steady
tick-tock and chimes on the quarter-hours are comforting.
If you are fortunate enough to have childhood memories of waiting while the weights were adjusted and the correct time checked against an elder relative’s pocket watch, or even a parent’s chronographic wristwatch, perhaps this blog is for you.

The form of the tall case clock, commonly known today as a “grandfather’s clock”, developed in response to technological advances in clock making during the late seventeenth century. Use of pendulums had improved accuracy in time keeping, but their wide arcs made a clock with a long pendulum somewhat impractical since it could not be fitted easily inside a case.

The invention of the anchor escapement, which used an anchor-shaped mechanism having prongs (called pallets) on the ends of its arms to alternately catch and release a vertical wheel with pointed teeth on it, allowed power supplied to the wheel by weights (or a spring) to be released in small regular bursts. This reduced a long pendulum’s swing to a much shorter arc that could fit inside a narrow case; less oscillation and lower air drag also greatly improved accuracy and reduced the power needed to keep the pendulum swinging and the wear on the clock’s movement. Most tall case clocks had a “seconds pendulum” about 39 inches long with a swing that lasted one second, hence its name.

KOAR 2008.1.11

KOAR 2008.1.11

A tall case was needed so that there would be enough space for the weights to drop. In America, springs had to be imported until about 1835-40 and were very expensive, so weights were typically used. (When the capability to manufacture springs in this country developed, tall case clocks quickly fell out of favor since shelf clocks were much cheaper to produce; it was not until the height of the Victorian era, after about 1870-1880, that big fancy hall clocks, usually with glass in the trunk door and beautiful brass weights and pendulums, became popular again.) Because the weights that provided power to the pendulum were heavy, the weight of the clock mechanism was better supported by a floor-standing pedestal rather than hanging it on a wall.

The tall case clock cabinet is made up of three sections. The top, called the “hood” or “bonnet”, contains the clock works and its face. The middle, called the “trunk” or “waist”, contains the pendulum and weights. The bottom section is the “base” and its height brings the clock face up to eye level. The case of the clock shown at upper left was made by William Lowry, a cabinetmaker in Frankfort, Kentucky, around 1805-1810.

The inner works of many tall case clocks of the early 1800s include imported English-made components, which reached Kentucky by way of trade with major urban centers such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The bell of the clock shown at right bears the mark of George Ainsworth, a Lancashire maker of clock parts and assembled clock works. The clock’s works were likely assembled by Thomas McMurray, a Lexington clock and watch maker who had worked previously in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Judging by his inscription on the clock’s seat board, McMurray apparently operated as Asa Blanchard’s subcontractor. Blanchard, well known as one of Kentucky’s earliest silversmiths, also advertised his Lexington shop’s ability to perform watch and clock work. It is Blanchard’s own signature that is on the back of this clock’s dial. (Only two other clocks bearing Blanchard’s signature are known; one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) However, the Kentucky cabinetmaker who made this magnificent case, alas, remains anonymous.


Kentucky Historical Society: Paul Sawyier

February 26, 2012

Paul Sawyier remains one of the most popular artists in the Commonwealth, although his work is relatively unknown outside of the region.

Big Eddy

Perhaps this might change a bit with the recent addition to KOAR of more than 120 images from the Kentucky Historical Society’s collection of his works, including many of the impressionistic landscapes of Franklin County and nearby surroundings which have long been local favorites. Painting these mainly in watercolors, Sawyier sensitively captured ephemeral lighting effects and subtle color contrasts in his idyllic Kentucky scenes.

Winter in Kentucky

During his final years, however, Sawyier lived and worked in New York City and the Catskill Mountains. It is here that he began painting primarily in oils and produced what many consider his most mature work. While living with his sister in Brooklyn, he painted views of the many parks and waterways in the area. After moving to the Catskills, he concentrated on the mountains and neighboring villages. But he also worked from photographs of the old familiar settings in his home state, sending these paintings back to the faithful Kentucky patrons who had commissioned them.

Railroad in the Catskills

The Sawyier family home in Frankfort was located where the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History on the KHS campus now stands, with a historical marker honoring Paul Sawyier near its main entrance. Several of his paintings are being rotated through the KHS Great Revivals exhibition at the Old State Capitol if you would like to see them in person. (Images from Great Revivals are also in KOAR.)

And you can read more about Paul Sawyier in two exhibition catalogues on the KOAR Publications page, which has been expanded by the addition of more than sixty-five items.  First, click on this link: http://www.koar.org/publications.htm
Then select Individual Artists and Makers at the top of the page. Works are chronologically arranged by publication date. Scrolling down, you can find the catalogue for a 1940 exhibition at The Speed Art Museum, Paintings by Paul Sawyier, and Willard Rouse Jillson’s Paul Sawyier and His Paintings, which contains a more detailed account of the artist’s life and works written to accompany the 1965 centenary exhibition commemorating Sawyier’s birth.


Treasures from the Kentucky Historical Society

February 3, 2011

The Kentucky Online Arts Resource, a project of the Speed Art Museum, is pleased to add the Kentucky Historical Society to the site’s growing list of museum partners!

KOAR now features several highlights from Kentucky Historical Society’s exhibition, Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures. Curated by Estill Curtis Pennington, the exhibition brings many of KHS’s best pieces together in a single installation at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

Among my favorites: a terrific example of “art-carved” furniture with carved decoration by Kate Perry Mosher of Covington, Kentucky (located just across the river from Cincinnati). I first saw this cabinet several years ago in one of KHS’s storage areas and was blown away the quality of Mosher’s work. Her carvings of herons, Kentucky cane plants, and other plant forms reflect great skill and a great eye for design.

Cabinet

Cabinet with carving by Kate Mosher, 1892

Mosher learned from a master: Cincinnati’s Benn Pitman, the godfather of Cincinnati’s late nineteenth-century art-carved furniture movement. Pitman established a wood carving program at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1873. Like Mosher, many students of art carving were women. She ranked among the best, exhibiting her work at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.


Documented Kentucky Furniture Now Available

January 27, 2011

Click on over to the Kentucky Online Arts Resource (KOAR) and you’ll find some great new additions, notably sixteen pieces of Kentucky furniture from one of the state’s best private collections. You can see a few highlights on KOAR’s Recent Additions page.

Many of the pieces can be tied to particular locales, owners, and even makers. In some cases, the connection comes through a piece’s provenance. One of my favorites: an elegant gaming table that descended in the Brown family of Frankfort.

Brown Family Gaming Table, 1800-1810

In other cases, the owners’ passion for research helps us reconnect the furniture to its original context. An imposing tall clock, made as early as the late eighteenth century (a fairly rare thing with surviving Kentucky furniture), can be tied to William Calk, an early settler, thanks to the collectors’ research. Calk’s 1775 account of his journey from Prince William County, Virginia to Kentucky makes for interesting reading.

Calk Family Tall Clock, 1790-1810

Along with furniture, new additions from the same collection include several examples of decorated stoneware.


Visiting Kentucky, 1807-1809

October 14, 2010

Period accounts of Kentucky (or anywhere else) can’t always be taken at face value. Often their authors had ulterior motives. John Filson’s famous The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784) was, shall we say, rather optimistic in its descriptions. If Filson could get settlers to the state, he could make money from his land investments.

Fortunately, Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country (1810) offers a more objective view. His very readable travel journal traces his roundabout trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, back to Pittsburgh, back down the Ohio, and on to the Mississippi.

For those interested in Kentucky life during the early nineteenth century, it makes for great reading. There’s information, too, for those interested in Kentucky antiques. Lately, I’ve been working on a research project involving the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Why? The state pen’s workshops produced chairs for many decades. The pen also produced stone slabs, some of which may have been used atop furniture.

Cuming provides a detailed description of the Kentucky pen as it existed in 1807. Along with a description of the facility, he notes the presence of “twenty-four miserable wretches” imprisoned there…and also gives a list of the work they did as “nailors, coopers, chair makers, turners, and stone cutters, the latter of whom cut and polish marble slabs of all sizes…”