Published: June 20, 2023
By Madelia Hickman Ring
PRINCETON, N.J. — The study and scholarship of the history of material culture of New Jersey pales in volume to that of the neighboring states New York and Pennsylvania, but a new exhibition at Morven Museum & Garden takes a step towards reversing that imbalance. Co-curated by clock scholar and collector Steve Petrucelli, and Morven’s curators Elizabeth Allan and Jesse Gordon, “Striking Beauty: New Jersey Tall Case Clocks, 1730-1830” is the most comprehensive exhibition to date to explore the craftsmanship of the state’s clockmakers and will be on view to February 18.
A historic house built by Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton (1730-1781) on land originally deeded to Stockton’s grandfather by William Penn in 1701 and, from 1945 to 1981, New Jersey’s Governor’s mansion, Morven is an ideal venue for the exhibition, featuring five special exhibition galleries with natural lighting and high ceilings, a necessary requirement for any presentation of tall case clocks.
The exhibition had its genesis in an exhibition Petrucelli prepared for the Trenton Historical Society in 2019-20 titled “Trenton Eclectic: An Exhibition of Art, Objects & Artifacts from 350 Years of Trenton History;” it was cut short because of the pandemic. After seeing press for the Trenton presentation, Elizabeth Allan, who is also Morven’s deputy director, reached out to Petrucelli about doing something similar at Morven, and shared her thoughts with Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
“Morven’s special exhibition galleries exist to celebrate New Jersey’s cultural heritage. ‘Striking Beauty’ does just that by showcasing the work of dozens of New Jersey craftsmen living in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Often overlooked in the field of decorative arts, this exhibition shows that the state was home to generations of important clockmakers.”
She continued, “From clock collectors to those learning about clocks for the first time, our visitor response has been great! Beyond the clocks, folks have been drawn to some of the rare surveying and navigational instruments made by clockmakers as well.”
“Striking Beauty” fills every inch of available gallery space at Morven, featuring 55 clocks — the majority of which are in working condition — and it’s magical when the hour strikes — from 16 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Accompanying them are clock fragments, portraits of clockmakers and their family makers, ephemera — including labels, clock advertisements, broadsides and account books — and objects related in a variety of ways to the clock trade. Spanning a full century, the earliest example is a flat-top walnut cased clock with engraved brass dial made in Burlington County circa 1730 by clockmaker and silversmith Isaac Pearson (1685-1749), who is considered among the earliest colonial clockmakers, with the latest, Hackensack’s Henry Schoonmaker’s (1804-1876) circa 1830s mahogany tall case clock with brass eagle finials and floral painted iron dial.
A welcoming sentinel to the exhibition that greets visitors is Peter Hill’s (1767-1820) circa 1800 Federal cherry wood tall case clock. The clock is significant not least because Hill was an African American clockmaker — generally considered the earliest in the Colonies — who learned his trade while working as an enslaved assistant to Quaker clockmaker, Joseph Hollinshead Jr (b 1751). Numbered “29” on its face, it is the lowest serial known of any of Hill’s extant clocks; for perspective, a clock he made in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is numbered “101,” indicating a production volume of at least that many.
A little further into the exhibition is a tall case example by John Scudder (1770-1844) from Westfield, with an unsigned movement attributed to the “Brokaw School.” The case bears a label for the cabinetmaker, suggesting that it might have been sold out of his shop.
The traditions of clockmaking in New Jersey originated in the Delaware Valley with descendants of early Eighteenth Century German, Dutch and English settlers and craftsmen. The earliest examples incorporated the long pendulum invented in the mid-Seventeenth Century by Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and also demonstrate the influence of the English clock case, which can be seen in the simply molded flat-top cases with square brass dials, weight-driven brass works and count wheel strike mechanisms. Local hardwoods such as walnut, cherry and maple were frequently used, though West Indian mahogany was available from importers for those clients with more exotic tastes and deeper pocketbooks.
As Petrucelli explains in the exhibition’s catalog of the same name, there were two primary craft centers in early Eighteenth Century New Jersey. The first of these was the city of Burlington, in one of the counties closest to Philadelphia, which it pre-dates. The port city of Elizabeth, in Union County, had, by the second quarter of the century, become another important area for craftsmen.
The special exhibition galleries are segregated geographically, each with a range of styles and periods that broadly demonstrate how New Jersey’s craftsmen met the demand for timepieces, adhered to popular stylistic traditions and, most importantly, adapted the latest and ever-evolving technological advancements.
Appropriately, the first gallery explores the early clocks of Burlington County, featuring not only Pearson’s circa 1730 example but clocks by his grandson, Isaac Pearson Rodman (1746-1810). Examples by Pearson’s apprentice and patriarch of the Hollinshead dynasty of clockmakers, Joseph Hollinshead Sr (1710-1775), as well as that of sons John Hollinshead (b 1745) and Joseph Hollinshead Jr (b 1751).
Rounding out the gallery are pieces by William Hudson (1746-1810), who apprenticed in Philadelphia under John Wood Jr (circa 1736-1793) and who worked in the county seat of Mount Holly, as well as a piece with a movement attributed to Isaac Wood (d 1785).
Burlington’s neighboring counties of Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester were home to more members of the Hollinshead family, as well as William Crow (1715-1758) of Salem, the brother of clockmaker George Crow (1694-1730). Two clockmakers who apprenticed in Philadelphia were Benjamin Reeve (1737-1801), one of Thomas Stretch’s proteges, and Isaac Mickle Cooper (1790-1848), who learned his craft from Benjamin Clarke.
The exhibition then swings northward into the state’s central counties of Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, Somerset and Union, inhabited by clockmakers such as William J. Leslie (1769-1831), George Rea (1774-1838) and Isaac Brokaw (1746-1826), to name a few.
An important technological development was the addition of a third clock train or weight, which is readily apparent by the three winding holes in the dial, allowed for separate and unique functions: time, hour strike, quarter-hour or musical chimes. Several clocks in the exhibition incorporate this feature.
One of these, and one of the most impressive pieces in the gallery, is a Federal inlaid musical clock made by Mathew Egerton Jr (circa 1769-1838) that houses works by Silas White Howell (1770-1818). Made in 1797, the clock played four tunes: “Bunker Hill,” “Norwich,” “Williams Town” and “Newton,” and featured a tympanum with punchwork, which is not only a hallmark of Egerton’s work but also allowed the tunes to be heard more clearly.
Petrucelli noted that a few revelations presented themselves during the course of exhibition research. Among these was the discovery of a card, tacked to the backboard of a Pearson & Hollinshead, Burlington circa 1745 cherry wood and cedar example. The card was covering an original handwritten label that documented a repair by Peter Hill in 1806. The special collections at Rutgers University is the source of the Lupp family account books, the inclusion in the exhibition Petrucelli credited to Morven’s staff for accessing and securing its loan.
A third surprise was a previously unknown surveyor’s compass made by Aaron Miller (died 1779) of Elizabeth Town, which was discovered in the Goshen Public Library & Historical Society by Morven’s registrar, Jesse Gordon. Under its nose in Morven’s own collections was a portrait of Nancy Squire Dod (1780-1851), whose connection to the portrait, Morven and a clockmaker were unearthed during preparation for the exhibition. Dod was the wife of Mendham, N.J., clockmaker Daniel Dod (1778-1823) and the mother of William Armstrong Dodd (1816-1872), who married Morven resident, Catherine Elizabeth Stockton (1827-1874).
Petrucelli hopes the exhibition gives visitors “the ability to see the history of New Jersey through the hands of time with these five galleries of clocks from every part of the state over a 100-year time period.”
He continues, “Clocks in private collections are almost never seen, and many institutions only exhibit a small fraction of the items in their collection. This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a 50-plus-year collector and conservator of New Jersey clocks, it’s not enough for me to study / share / present this information. I have to provide the trigger / spark of interest for the next group of ‘Petrucelli’s’ to take over in the future, as my life clock is winding down.”
Morven Museum & Garden is at 55 Stockton Street. For information, 609-924-8144, email@example.com or www.morven.org.
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