Published: September 11, 2001
Jewels of Time:
UTICA, N.Y. – The aesthetic brilliance and exquisite craftsmanship of ornamented historical timepieces is featured in a major exhibition at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute’s Museum of Art.
The exhibition will remain on view until November 4, and will travel to the Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, Texas, from September 26, 2002, through January 12, 2003. It will be at the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga., from April to June 2003. The exhibit will then travel overseas in Europe, and perhaps Asia and South America, until 2007.
“Jewels of Time: ” explores watches within the history of decorative arts and jewelry. The exhibition includes 80 skillfully crafted and visually appealing European watches. They are drawn from a larger collection of nearly 300 timepieces that was assembled in the late-Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries by Thomas R. Proctor (1844-1920) and Frederick T. Proctor (1856-1929), two of the founders of MWPAI.
The Proctor watch collection is among the largest and most important in the United States. Comprising timepieces dating from the late Sixteenth to the early Twentieth Centuries, it has the added distinction that it is intact. Few watch collections assembled in the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century have fared as well as the Proctor collection.
The collection is a reliable guide to one aspect of the Proctors’ interests and taste, and, in a larger sense, of turn-of-the-century attitudes and patterns of collecting. As a group, the watches provide an overview of 300 years of timekeeping as watches evolved from jewelry and novelty rdf_Descriptions to precision timepieces.
The exhibition is divided into categories that reveal the opulence of each piece. The intricate scenes depicted on the repousse cases of many of the silver and gold watches, for example, illustrate the height of metalsmithing techniques. The exquisite enamel watches feature highly detailed miniature portraits and still lifes framed in pearls.
Semi-precious stones were also a favored ornamental element, and examples in “Jewel of Time” range from diamond highlights on a bug-form watch, to a jewel-encrusted watchcase and chatelaine. The collection also includes Renaissance-style watches of rock crystal, watches made for the Turkish market, clever automatons and novelty watches in forms that vary from a skull to a blossoming flower.
Watchmaking began in the late Fifteenth Century and reached an aesthetic and technical pinnacle in the late Nineteenth Century. Initially, watches were worn as jewelry and served as status symbols for rich and powerful individuals. When personal timekeeping became more significant in daily life, watches were used by a broader segment of the population in Europe and, eventually, in the East and the Americas. The making of watches developed from a craft to a sizeable, competitive industry that attracted the finest scientists and artists. Watchmaking requires numerous artisans with specialized skills. Success in the market place was due in large measure to synergy among horologists (watch scientists), casemaker and decorators. As horologists refined timekeeping with technical advances, the form of the watch changed to accommodate the innovative movements (working parts). Serendipitously, new shapes provided fresh space for a wider range of ornamental possibilities, which followed prevailing trends in decorative arts and jewelry.
Thomas Redfield Proctor, born in Vermont and educated in Boston, served in the United States Navy during the Civil War and afterward settled in Nyack, N.Y., where he managed a hotel. He moved to Utica about 1869 and bought Bagg’s Hotel and the Butterfield House in Utica and the elegant Spring House in Richfield Springs, a resort town about 20 miles south of Utica.
Proctor also owned an area farm to supply his hotels with award-winning dairy products and fresh produce. In 1891 he married Maria Munson Williams (1853-1935), the youngest daughter of Helen Munson (1824-1894) and James Watson Williams (1810-1973).
While the couple honeymooned in Europe, Helen acquired the house next door to her home, Fountain Elms (now the decorative arts department of the Institute’s Museum of Art), for her daughter and son-in-law. Around the time of his marriage to Maria Williams, Thomas sold the two Utica hotels but retained the Spring House until it was destroyed by fire in 1897. Thomas’s other business ventures include the establishment of banks in Utica and Richfield Springs and service as an officer of both institutions. He was also a member of numerous local boards.
In 1894 Frederick Towne Proctor (Thomas’s younger half-brother), married Rachel Williams (1850-1915), Maria’s older sister. Frederick was born in Cambridge, Mass., and schooled in Manchester, N.H. and Boston. After working in the wholesale grocery business, Frederick moved to Utica in 1888 and worked in several commercial enterprises. He was, among other endeavors, a vice president at Quigley Furniture Company and president of Hart and Crouse Company, a manufacturer of heating apparatus. The couple resided at Fountain Elms.
The Proctor brothers and their wives dedicated themselves to civic work and philanthropy. Thomas and Maria supported many charities, including the local orphanage, and they donated significant acreage to the city of Utica for the development of an extensive park system. Thomas’s obituary in the Utica Observer noted, “Few cities have such outstanding examples of public spirited citizenship as the man who honored Utica and whom Utica honored.”
Frederick served on many community boards and was a member of several organizations, including the public library and the county historical society. He and Rachel underwrote the construction of a local hospital. Frederick was remembered in the newspaper as achieving “works of outstanding usefulness and benefit to the people of this city and vicinity, and many generations yet to come will be better in health…and spirit because of lasting institutions which he helped to found.”
The Proctor couples, neither of whom had surviving descendants, traveled extensively in the United States and abroad and actively collected decorative arts and European paintings. Their benevolences include the creation of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, a repository for their various collections and a response to their sensitivity to practical instruction as well as cultural edification of the community.
The Proctors’ watch collections were assembled by each brother individually in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries but were given as a single collection to the institute in 1935. Though the siblings were not the most affluent of the nation’s turn-of-the-century private watch collectors (men such as Henry E. Huntington, J. Pierpont Morgan, James Ward Packard and H.J. Heinz), their assemblage was certainly one of the foremost collections. When traveling throughout the United States and Europe they scoured auctions and sought dealers to acquire the best pieces at reasonable prices.
The watch collection remained on view at the institute until 1958 when Fountain Elms was undergoing restoration and the contemporary museum building was under construction. At that time, the collection was placed on long-term loan to the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the watches returned to the institute in 1988. “Jewels of Time” is the first major exhibition of the collection.
The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue contains an in-depth, scholarly essay by internationally recognized jewelry expert Janet Zapata and an essay on the history of the collection by MWPAI curator of decorative arts Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio.
The book offers an exploration of the major techniques used to ornament watches and discussions of the most significant examples in the collection. An illustrated checklist of the entire Proctor collection, based on research by watch historian Jonathan Snellenburg, concludes the book.
The catalogue, the sixth in an ongoing series the museum has published since the mid-1980s on aspects of its varied holdings, is a comprehensive, scholarly guide to the entire collection, it is intended for specialists and collectors, but features an accessible text and attractive, full-page color illustrations for a general readership.
It supercedes the only other publications about the collection, two rare, turn-of-the-century books: Ferdinand T. Haschka, The Thomas R. Proctor Collection of Antique Watches (New York: privately printed, 1907); and The Frederick Towne Proctor Collection of Antique Watches and Table Clocks (Utica, N.Y.; privately printed, 1913).
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute is at 310 Genesee Street. Telephone, 315-797-0000.
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