Thursday, October 14, 2010

At Long Last, a Washington Clock

Among the most iconic and desired objects for serious collectors of American antique furniture and related decorative arts are gilt bronze clocks memorializing George Washington, made in France in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  The clocks' cases were fabricated in the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Dubuc (1743-1819), a bronzier whose career spanned the Bourbons and later regimes, with works supplied by various clockmakers, also French.  Examples of these clocks are found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the White House, and the diplomatic reception rooms at the Department of State.  They are also found in the collections at Winterthur, Yale University, and Homewood House, among other places.

Gilt bronze Washington clock with eagle motif, ca. 1815-1820
Case by Jean-Baptiste Dubuc (France)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

George Washington's legacy as the hero of the Revolution and this nation's first president acquired epic status after his death in 1799 and prompted the production of an enormous quantity of objects memorializing him.  There was a veritable explosion of china, silver, jewelry, and textiles produced in this country commemorating his life and achievements, and also in England and France, where enterprising manufacturers churned out objects for export to America.  At the very pinnacle of these commemorative objects, known as "Washingtonia," stand the elegant gilt bronze clocks made in France.  Relatively few of them were produced, and the ones that were made were among the most expensive Washington memorial objects made at the time, affordable only by the very well-to-do. 

Washington clock on mantle at Homewood House
Baltimore, Maryland
Image courtesy of
The Magazine Antiques

Not all of the known Washington clocks are in museums or on display in public collections.  There are examples in private collections, too, and in the homes of people fortunate to have inherited them.  One such person appeared on Antiques Roadshow ten years ago carrying a Washington clock that had been passed down to him through the generations, and was astonished to learn of its importance and value.

General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton
Painted by John Trumbull in 1792
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

The figure of Washington that appears on the clocks is generally believed to have been modeled after the pose that appears in John Trumbull's full-length portrait of Washington at the revolutionary war's Battle of Trenton.  Painted in 1792, it has been in the collection of Yale University since the early nineteenth century.

The Trumbull Gallery at Yale University (demolished 1901)
Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut

Not surprisingly, Dubuc's Washington clocks are very valuable, and they are very costly when they come on the market.  Not only are they rare, but since many of the known ones are already in museums or collections, they command stratospheric prices when they become available.  Ones that are in a compromised condition--either missing elements or where the gilding has worn off--start in the mid-five figures, and ones that are in pristine condition have sold well into the six figures.

The Green Room at the White House in 1904
President Theodore Roosevelt administration
Image courtesy of the White House Association

The Washington clock in the collection of the White House has sat on the fireplace mantle in the Green Room since the room was redesigned by McKim, Mead and White for President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the last century.  It can be seen sitting on the same mantle over one hundred years later:

The Green Room at the White House in 2008
Image courtesy of
Architectural Digest

I must admit I rather prefer the way the Green Room looked under Teddy Roosevelt to how it has appeared under the last several administrations.  I think the public or state rooms at the White House have come to look rather ossified in recent years, if not almost dead.  But that's a subject of a different post than this one, I suppose.

Gilt bronze Washington clock with All-Seeing Eye motif, ca. 1810
Case by Jean-Baptiste Dubuc (France)
Image courtesy of Jonathan Snellenburg Antiques, Ltd.

Getting back to the subject at hand . . .

There are several variations to the Washington clock known today.  They come in two sizes: one approximately fifteen inches tall and another around twenty inches.  The decorations, or elements, on the clocks vary, too.  Some of them include eagles on top of the clock, and others show the All-Seeing Eye motif found in the Great Seal of the United States.  All of the Dubuc clocks include the standing figure of Washington.

General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton
Engraved by Thomas Cheeseman (England) in 1795
After the painting by John Trumbull
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

It is likely that the figure of Washington used as the basis for the one on the Washington clocks was taken from an engraving of Trumbull's painting, rather than the painting itself.  The engraving was widely circulated at the end of the eighteenth century, when it was struck, and would have been available in France to use as the basis for the figure of Washington standing on the clock's base.

Gilt bronze Washington clock, elaborate format, ca. 1815
Case by Jean-Baptiste Dubuc (France)
Image courtesy of Israel Sack, Inc.

An even more elaborate version of the Washington clock, one that includes a mounted globe along with other elements, once passed through the hands of Israel Sack, Inc., one of the greatest and most legendary dealers of Americana in the twentieth century.  I do not know of its current whereabouts.

Which brings me to why I'm writing this essay . . .

It should come as no surprise that Reggie has wanted to own a Washington clock since he first remembers seeing one.  But such is the stuff of fantasy, for even though Reggie is comfortable, he is not rich, and it would be lunatic madness for him to attempt to buy such a clock were he to find one available for sale or at auction.  That is, unless he won the lottery, which--despite occasionally buying tickets for it--he has not done so, yet.

Reggie's gilt bronze Washington clock

But just the other day fate smiled upon Reggie, and he came across a diminutive, related version of Dubuc's Washington clock at an antiques show at the Park Avenue Armory, in New York City, that he was able to buy for but a tiny fraction of what one of Monsieur Dubuc's clocks goes for.  And that's because Reggie's clock has some--well, a lot--of condition and attribution issues.

The bust of Washington that sits on top of Reggie's clock

For one thing, it is clearly not of the same series as the famous Washington clocks.  It is much smaller, measuring only seven and a half inches high; it only has a bust of Washington upon it and not the full figure modeled after Trumbull's portrait; it has relatively little ornament applied to the clock's case; and it is missing an important decorative element.  On top of that, the clock's works were made in England, and not in France.  Oh, and it doesn't work, either.

A later "make-do" finial, where the missing element was once attached

But Reggie nonetheless feels rather fortunate to have found it, and to have it now in his collection at Darlington House.

The back of the clock, showing the clock works

I've been able to date the clock's mechanism, since it is signed, and I was able to find out a bit about who the clockmaker was by doing some basic Internet sleuthing.  Richard Durrant (1786-1866) was an English clockmaker, silversmith, jeweler, and optometrist with a shop in Beccles, England, about 100 miles northeast of London.  He was active 1815-1855.

The clock's works, showing Durrant's mark

Based on that, it is not too much of a stretch to posit that Reggie's clock was made around the same time as when Dubuc's clocks were made, or shortly thereafter, to capitalize on the craze for Washington memorabilia in this country.  But there is also part of Reggie that suspects the case could have been made later, in the 1880s or 1890s during the post-Centennial colonial revival period, and that an earlier clock mechanism might have been put into it in order to make it appear to be older than it really is.

A Washington memorial bandana, ca. 1799
Image courtesy of
Antiques Roadshow

And then there is the issue of the missing element.  I suspect it could have been an eagle, an urn, an obelisk, a weeping willow, or a recumbent figure in mourning, similar to ones seen in memorial pictures that were popular in the early nineteenth century.

Memorial picture (Folwell School), 1803
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Even with the condition issues that Reggie is well aware of, he is quite happy to have his little Washington clock.  He looks forward to hunting down an appropriate decorative element to add to the case, and he will be sure to share an image of his clock when it is happily united with said element, once he has had the great good fortune to find it.

The back of the bust's head, showing Washington's queue wig

Tell me, have you ever seen a version of Reggie's Washington clock?  What do you think the missing decorative element was?

Unless noted, all photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. Rather nice, and wonderfully simple.

  2. Congratulations on this wonderful new addition to Darlington's collections! I know the sensation of FINALLY finding that one special object after searching for it forever. It really does feel like winning the lottery...albeit a relatively short-lived sensation. By the way, they say patience is its own reward, but they are dead wrong.

    And I'd really love to know what was originally attached at that corner. My first thought was of it's being an eagle, but of course that was only a wild guess. It's a bit puzzling to me that any ornament would have been located so close to a corner. Seems like almost anything one placed there would stand proud of the edge. You've probably tried googling this yourself already, but I had to laugh when I immediately googled up a clock identical to yours, only to discover that this one was also missing its corner element.

    Oh well, time will tell!

  3. Dear Reggie, I think that your clock looks very handsome but, alas, I have little knowledge of clocks - English, French or otherwise- to add to what you already know. For my own part, I should not care about the missing decoration but I should wish the clock to work since a dead clock is rather sad!

  4. Reggie , good morning.

    What a beautiful clock you have and what a pity it is whatever that finial replaced is gone. My concern is that if the object had any width at all it would have overhung the edge making the composition unbalanced. Having said that, I wonder if it might have been a pyramid such as one sees on the reverse of a dollar bill - anchored at one corner.

    Our clock is by Dubuc and dated by antiquaire in Amsterdam to the Directoire period. It does not have George Washington but instead a hunter and his dog by a spring and pool. There's a photo of it here where it's accompanied by a late 19th/early 20th century silver water pitcher.

  5. Congratulations on your find! I was going to suggest that the figure of Columbia holding a sheaf of wheat would stand next to the bust, appearing about one inch taller than the other elements. Then I thought it could be a simple obelisk.

  6. Columnist: Thank you, Reggie is quite pleased with it.

    Anon 4:11: Reggie is impressed that your Google came up with a similar clock, whereas his endless attempts at finding one came up empty handed. In studying the pictures on the link you supplied, which shows the results of an auction in June 2006, Reggie suspects that it may well be the very one that he acquired from the dealer just the other day, but where the "make-do" has since been replaced. Thank you!

    Edith Hope: The clock worked when I looked it over with the dealer before buying it, but, alas, when I got it home it did not any longer. I will eventually get it working (and find an appropriate missing element) I trust. I do have the key, though.

    Blue: Ah, what a pretty Dubuc you have, indeed! I, like you and MDR, am a bit perplexed as to what could have been attached at the outer corner of the empty area. I suspect it could be a foot to a figure, a trunk to a tree (weeping willow? broken tree trunk?) that does not extend over the edge, but rather leans in towards the clock case. 'Tis a puzzlement!

    Mark D. Ruffner: Thank you, and I agree that your suggestions seem quite probable.

  7. I have an 1870's mantel clock and must keep it perfectly level to keep it running. Could this be a factor?

    Now this may be fantasy, but I imagine the missing element being a flag pole with the stars and strips at the top.

  8. The Green Room looked the best under the Clintons, when they had an O'Keefe over the secretary.

  9. Love this post! I have seen most of the Washington clocks in museums and as a tour guide at Homewood house love to point out the one we have in the collection that is the only one I know of with it's original glass dome. I have not seen your clock in the form it is in but I have seen bronze clocks with the Washington bust on top of a bronze square base in a antiques magazine.

  10. A few years ago, a Washington clock came up for auction here, at the last of the Bar Harbor estates to still retain furnishings from the 1920's. Somehow, word got out, and even in November in Down East Maine, it fetched 17,000, plus buyer's premium, to a NY dealer.. Oh well.

    A few years ago, I was roaming through a shop in southern Maine, on a normally very expensive and overshopped stretch of route one. To my utter surprise and delight, I found a particularly graceful small scaled example, with a goddess on the right leaning against the clock itself. Its condition was impeccable, and it was utterly heartstopping, as was the price, a mere $300---absolutely ridiculously low.

    I'm voting for your missing element being a foot or staff of a goddess, similarly leaning in her diaphanous gown.

  11. Interesting how verification words sometimes echo the comment. Today's was Kebos, Kebo of course being the name of the famed golf course at Bar Harbor.

  12. I love your clock, Reggie! I wish I could help you with your missing element, but I can't wait to find out what it is/was.

  13. I love the simplicity of the clock - perhaps it was an urn that is missing?
    I have to agree with you about the current state of the white has turned into a rather stiff museum rather than a living house of american history. quite unfortunate.

  14. Can you tell if all the gilding is original and if the finish on the bust matches that of the clock and the base?

  15. My Dear Reggie - To paraphrase Light Horse Harry Lee's famous eulogy for Washington: "To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace and first on the mantels of his countrymen."

    Fondly yours, Frecky.

  16. This is such a fascinating mystery calling for a certain amount of connoisseurship which I don't have. You gave us a rich background on the genre plus those gorgeous Dubuc examples, all of which are flush with classical GW-specific minutely-wrought attributes. Your marvelous treasure stands in bold contrast given the efficiency of modeling and the paucity of iconography. The fact that his identifying name was specified says something, I'm not quite sure what. Should we conclude the missing element to be as efficiently-wrought as the bust, I would think so. Should we conclude that whatever it was, there was enough flourish about it to merit standing alone, which it probably does to this day.

    One GW attribute that occasionally appears in memorial art is the cherry tree, and does so because the legend spoke to the high value put upon virtues and ideals in that day. Here's a good little background on "The Moral Washington":

    So, possibly a cherry tree, how magnificent if it exceeded the height of the bust although that would violate the strict genre order of staying within the planes of the base, but this gem of yours violates most of the rules of the genre.

    Fascinating mystery, thanks for the pleasure!

  17. Oh Urn is a very good guess AD!

  18. Not a Goddess! Lady Liberty! Lady Liberty was there!

  19. Ancient: As far a I can tell, the gilding appears original, and the head (or bust) appear to have been on the clock, given the age and crustiness of the screws that at attach it to the case, which appear never to have been disturbed.

    Frecky: Most appropriate, and most amusing, indeed!

    Flo: Thank you for your comment, I had not considered a cherry tree, most interesting.

    DED: That sounds most plausible, that it was Lady Liberty. Given the excitement conveyed in your comment, do you base this on having come across another example of this clock with such a feature, or is this something you suspect, given your knowledge in these matters?

  20. Why Reggie darling, it's my vast knowledge. of course!

    Failing that, it's educated guess combined with years of observation. Of course, the real truth is that since these clocks were made from mix and match parts, we may never know the real truth. If my 78 year run of the Magazine Antiques were not still packed from the move, I'd start browsing.

  21. Reggie I find your clock to be absolutely stunning. I like the simplicity of it, not too ornate.

    I do not have a vast knowledge of clocks so I am not at all sure of the missing element.

    I have a Luxurious New French Giveaway on my site....Come and enter!!

    Art by Karena

  22. Can you tell us any more about the Trumbull Gallery? When it was built and why it was demolished. What is in its place now? I am a Yale mom and just curious.

  23. Reggie,

    My grandfather had a clock very similar to yours on the mantle in his library. It isn't in my posession to double check my memory, but I recall it having Lady Liberty with a laurel wreath leaning against the General's plinth. The case of that clock was made for the centenary of Washington's death (1899). I have no idea when or where the movement was made. It could, of course be something completely different, but I'd put my money on that.

  24. For sale:


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