In the Seventeenth Century the longcase clock grew out of the brass ‘chamber clock’ or lantern clock which had a removable wooden hood (it had to be taken off every time the clock was wound up). The introduction of the pendulum, linked to a change from a balance wheel to an anchor escapement, led to much greater accuracy of time-keeping. Early pendulum clocks had to accommodate a swing of 100º which necessitated the use of ‘wings’ at the side of the clock. In time a standard 39 inch pendulum was introduced (known as the royal or seconds pendulum). This swung every second and needed an arc of between 4º and 6º, so clock cases could be narrow, but needed to be long enough to hold the pendulum. In time the cases moved on from being a plain box into being elaborate and beautifully embellished carcasses. In England their style was much influenced by craftsmen from Holland, who came over with William of Orange in 1685.
In the early years of the 17th Century the time keeping devices had been known as horologues – the clock was simply the striking mechanism but over the years the term ‘clock’ was applied to the entire mechanism. The terms “grandfather”, “grandmother”, and “granddaughter” have all been applied to longcase clocks. Although there is no specifically defined difference among these terms, the general consensus seems to be that a clock smaller than 5 ft is a granddaughter; over 5 ft is a grandmother; and over 6 ft is a grandfather. Other names are tall-case clock, or floor clock.
Typically these longcase clocks of the latter part of the 17th Century were adorned with corkscrew or twisted pillars, and the cases were elaborately embellished with marquetry, The wood was usually pine or oak, often blackened to look like ebony, with fruitwood decoration. The early clocks only had an hour hand and there were double circles where the numerals were, dividing the hours into quarters, the half hours being indicated by an ornament of extra length, like an arrow-head or fleur-de-lis. The engraving on clock faces and on the brass plates at the back was highly decorative. Borders, intricate rings about the winding holes, birds and flowers, were all introduced into the decoration, and the spandrels or ornaments at the corners became incredibly ornate. Early dials often had a line of verse in each corner such as one from 1681 bearing the words:
“Behold this hand,
Observe ye motion tip;
Man’s precious hours
Away like these do slip.”
In time verses gave way to angels heads, and cupids, and these made way for the scrolls and rococo designs of the 18th Century.
Thomas Tompion, known as the ” Father of English watchmaking,” had by 1658 attained much fame and status. He was succeeded by Daniel Quare, who had a shop at St. Martin’s le Grand, London, in 1676. Then came George Graham, an apprentice and protégé of Tompion, and he succeeded to his business in 1713.
The early clocks were thirty-hour mechanisms (i.e. they needed to be wound up once a day, with a six hour lee-way). Then came the eight day clock – much more expensive, and therefore immediately sought after. Eventually month and even one-year clocks were introduced.
By the middle of the 18th Century mahogany made an appearance, and then swept the board thanks to the efforts of men like Chippendale. Oriental styles were also popular, with lacquered painted decorations on an oak carcass.
The early clocks all had square faces, made of brass. In time more elaborate features – such as phases of the moon, date, silent/chime controls etc – led to an arc being added above the square (particularly after 1710). And then a total change came in – the vogue for painted dials. These started in the 1770s and within thirty years had largely replaced the brass dial. These early dials had simple decorations, such as birds or strawberries. By 1830 small painted scenes, in the corners and arch, were depicted on dials.
Throughout the 1800’s the longcases got smaller. The finials disappeared and designs became simpler and less embellished. Manufacture in London slowed down and largely switched to Birmingham and the Midlands, and to Bristol and the West Country. Even worse, the vogue was for clocks with circular faces and hence rounded tops to their cases – a loathsome abomination which to my mind marked the end of the development of the longcase clock!
All the clocks featured here come from P. A. Oxley Antique Clocks. They have an excellent site at www.britishantiqueclocks.com and I am grateful to them for setting out a helpful history of the longcase clock on their site.