Published: January 9, 2007
“Clocks fascinate,” Philip D. Zimmerman writes in Delaware Clocks, his catalog to an exhibition of the same name at the Biggs Museum of American Art through February 25.
Furniture and machinery at the same time, tall case clocks are the work of many hands: movement maker, cabinetmaker and the engraver or painter of the dial. Tall clocks are kinetic sculpture and musical instruments. Their complexity has long captivated and, where scholarship is concerned, sometimes intimidated.
Thanks in part to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1845 poem, “The Old Clock on The Stairs,” and Edward Lamson Henry’s 1868 painting of the same name, grandfather clocks were prized by the first collectors of American antiques, who noted the anthropomorphic qualities of their “ticking” hearts. Sentimentalists associated the disappearance of the form with the passing of the colonial era.
Not surprisingly, early antiquarians wrote about clocks. In his Colonial Furniture of New England (1891), Hartford, Conn., collector Irving W. Lyon included a chapter on timepieces. Seven years later, the Historical Society of Delaware published Henry C. Conrad’s Old Delaware Clockmakers, the basis for all subsequent studies of Delaware clocks.
“For whatever reasons, the few modest-size towns that grew up along the Delaware River supported clock-making communities responsible for producing remarkable examples of the craft. Many of these early clocks exhibit designs that are unique to the region,” writes Zimmerman.
The Biggs Museum exhibition features nearly 20 clocks made in Delaware between 1740 and 1815. The 30 lenders and supporters of the Delaware clock project included Winterthur, Yale, the Historical Society of Delaware, Mr and Mrs Joseph Hennage, and Mr and Mrs Edward F. LaFond Jr.
The Biggs Museum owns nine Delaware clocks, making it an obvious choice for the show, says Biggs Museum curator Ryan D. Grover, who earned degrees from the Chipstone Foundation-sponsored University of Wisconsin-Madison program in material culture before interning at Winterthur.
The Biggs Museum is housed on the second and third floors of a contemporary brick building on Dover’s historic green. Dover was founded by William Penn in 1683 and has been Delaware’s capital since 1777.
The museum was created by Sewell C. Biggs, a Middletown, Del., native who began collecting Delaware and Delaware Valley decorative arts and American representational painting in the 1930s. Biggs died in 2003 at age 88 while en route to New York City to preview the Americana Week auctions. The Biggs Museum opened in 1993.
In 2002, the museum published The Sewell C. Biggs Collection of American Art, a two-volume catalog. Zimmerman surveyed furniture in the collection, providing entries for six Delaware clocks.
“I was constrained by the format. Those six clocks told a much bigger story,” recalls the Lancaster, Penn.-based independent scholar, who suggested that the treatment be expanded into the present catalog and exhibition.
Delaware Clocks surveys makers by geographic locale. The first section is devoted to the early history of clock making in Delaware. The first known reference is 1656, when Jacob Alrichs, the Dutch administrative head of New Amstel, now New Castle, Del., mentioned clockmaker Jan van der Bosch. Later Alrichses — Jonas (1759–1802) and Jacob (1775–1857) — were among Delaware’s first well-documented clockmakers.
William Furniss of Newport, Del., made the earliest documented Delaware clock in 1741. Furniss’s movement is housed in a walnut case with a brass dial. Little is known about Furniss other than that he bought property in Newport in 1739 and signed a few other clocks. He died before 1749. His son, Samuel, was apprenticed to Benjamin Chandlee Jr (1723–1791), a clockmaker who lived in Nottingham, Penn., but purchased property in Wilmington after 1750.
“George Crow left the first substantial body of work representing a single Delaware clockmaker. His legacy establishes him as an excellent and prolific artisan,” writes Zimmerman. The Wilmington clockmaker is represented by a walnut flat-top tall clock with a 30-hour brass movement and a brass dial engraved 1744.
A spectacular tall clock from the Biggs collection is from George Crow’s mature period. Its eight-day movement incorporates a second-hand mechanism. Crow’s name appears on an arched dial below the center. The elaborate case has a molded sarcophagus top and a bull’s-eye glass window at the waist.
The maker of the case is unknown. Writes Zimmerman, “No Delaware case furniture predating that made by John Janvier in the 1770s has been identified to its maker. The clocks housing Crow and Furniss works, consequently, are a conundrum….it is possible that some George Crow cases were made in Philadelphia, shipped to Wilmington, and fitted there with Crow movements and dials.”
George Crow was followed in business by two sons, George Jr (died 1789) and Thomas (working 1770–1824). Surviving examples by these makers illustrate evolving styles in Delaware. Scrolled pediments replaced stepped tops, colonettes were carved in the round, waist door shapes became more complex, base panels were introduced and ogee feet replaced bracket bases.
In 1999, Freeman’s Fine Arts in Philadelphia sold a Delaware timepiece for $452,000, including premium, at the time an auction record for an American clock. The tall clock was signed on the dial by Duncan Beard of Appoquinimink, today Odessa, and inscribed in chalk “Made at Cantwell’s Bridge/Delaware/1779.” The case was attributed to John Janvier Sr of Odessa.
Because Odessa clocks are well-known, Zimmerman began his research with them. Plotting the names and dates of clockmakers and case makers, the scholar tracked the progress of craftsmen from town to town.
“It gets to be a very tight community. One can almost imagine these people crossing paths and exchanging ideas,” says Zimmerman, who examined 60 clocks, studying case design, construction and materials for a developing pattern.
“What emerged was a very strong group of Odessa cabinetmaking,” he says.
Odessa became a regional clock-making center in the 1770s. The earliest case documented to John Janvier Sr is today known only by a photograph. Illustrated in Delaware Clocks, it contains a movement by Benjamin Chandlee Jr (1723–91) and an engraved brass dial. Pasted inside the case is John Janvier’s trade card, declaring him to be a cabinetmaker and chair maker from Philadelphia.
Janvier Sr was born in Newcastle, Del., and trained in Philadelphia. Zimmerman theorizes that he moved to Elkton, Md., soon after 1770 and settled in Odessa around 1775. A series of horizontal boards, rather than a single vertical board, distinguish the backs of his cases. Janvier’s method was copied by other case makers in the area. Highly scalloped doors, no two alike, also mark Odessa-area clocks.
Virtually all Janvier-type cases house movements by Duncan Beard, Christopher Weaver or Richard Miller. A clock in a Janvier case from the collection of Yale University Art Gallery has an eight-day brass movement by Christopher Weaver (working 1780s–1815).
Duncan Beard (working 1765–1797) is represented by an Odessa tall clock from the collection of Winterthur Museum/Historic Odessa Foundation. Housed in a 9-foot-tall mahogany case attributed to John Janvier Sr, the clock remains in the Odessa house of William Corbit (1746–1818), for whom it was made.
“Richard Miller is a late comer and an enigmatic figure. He doesn’t appear in records but his name is on clocks and his place of business, in a couple of cases, is Duck Creek Crossroads, which became Smyrna,” says Zimmerman, who suspects that Richard Miller was a Loyalist who fled New Jersey. Five signed Miller clock movements are housed in Janvier-type cases.
The final section looks at Wilmington clocks in the post-Revolutionary era. Thomas Crow trained the last generation of Wilmington clockmakers, among them John Crow and Jonas Alrichs (1759–1802). All Alrichs tall clocks made after 1780 have white painted dials. John Erwin (1727–97) was the leading case maker of the era. Three Alrichs clocks and one Duncan Beard clock are housed in cases attributed to Erwin.
Table, or bracket, clocks became part of the American repertoire by 1800. American table clocks with American-made works are rare. A Wilmington table clock made between 1790 and 1805 has the name Ziba Ferris painted onto its dial and Thomas Crow engraved on its movement, suggesting that Crow made his own clocks and supplied parts to others. A George Jones of Wilmington eight-day table clock dates to 1812. In each instance, the maker of the case is unknown.
Both Grover and Zimmerman acknowledge that more research remains to be done.
“Samuel McClary, Charles Canby, the mysterious Evanses, and James, Joseph and Alexander Kinkead are some of the individuals whose lives and work need more study. The work of well-known makers, such as George and Thomas Crow, Duncan Beard and Jonas Alrichs, needs to be investigated in further detail to better understand practices, trends and variations,” writes Zimmerman.
The scholar will lead a tour of “Delaware Clocks” at the Biggs Museum on Wednesday, January 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Antique clock appraiser Gordon S. Converse will assess the Biggs Museum’s collection of Delaware clocks on Saturday, February 3, from 3:30 to 4:30 pm.
“Delaware Clocks” travels to the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Penn., from April 1 to January 1, 2008. Philip Zimmerman will lecture there on May 5.
Delaware Clocks, which supplements research for the exhibition with more than 75 illustrations, is for sale for $24.95, plus $5 shipping and handling, from the Biggs Museum of American Art at 406 Federal Street, Dover, DE 19903.
For information, 302- 674-2111 or www.biggsmuseum.org.
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