Classica Americana : A collection of essays

Going for the Gold

Two French Ormolu Washington Clocks at Classical American Homes Preservation Trust

Recently I commented to my colleague Margize Howell on the extraordinary number of French ormolu mantel clocks on view in the houses of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. When I asked her if she knew just how many there are, she answered, “count the number of fireplace mantels.” Though Margize was being facetious, a concurrent count of fireplace mantels and the French mantel clocks acquired by Dick Jenrette and Bill Thompson over the years, which number twenty-one in total, revealed that we are only around a dozen shy. Onward!

These twenty-one timepieces (pendules de chiminée) count out the hours on fireplace mantels in virtually every house except Cane Garden in St. Croix, where due to the tropical climate, there is not a fireplace or mantel to be seen. Their omnipresence calls to mind the comments of the dramatist and writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) on the eve of the French Revolution in his Tableau de Paris: “Every chimney-piece has its clock. . . . . Clocks are everywhere . . . . in every room you see them, and apparently nobody finds them disturbing, though they mark most mercilessly the flight of the hours; clocks like little temples, or domes of gilded bronze, or perhaps globes of white marble, with figures running around like an equator. . . . Luxury has run the whole gamut of imagination in devising these superfluous splendors.” (from entry for acc. 1972).

Figure 1
Clock with Figure of George Washington, 1815-17. Marked (on the dial): Dubuc/Rue-Michel-le-Comte No. 33/ A PARIS. On this clock Washington’s relatively young visage is believed to derive from a 1780 Trumbull painting of Washington as general of the Army published as a mezzotint in London in 1781 and issued in a bust-length version in 1783.

No less inventive or diverse, the twenty-one mantel clocks at Classical American Homes range in date from 1800 to 1840 and in terms of their design and subject matter can be divided into four broad thematic categories: ancient Greek mythology, classical architecture, scenes from everyday life in the early nineteenth century, and allegories in which the sculptural figures on the clocks are emblematic of certain abstract concepts, such as the fleeting nature of beauty and youth, patriotism, and glory. The two Washington clocks at Classical American Homes (figures 1 and 2) fall squarely within this final category.

These Washington clocks belong to a larger group of approximately two dozen closely related examples, two-thirds of which measure approximately 19-1/2 inches tall and the remainder reduced in height by about 4 inches to make them more affordable. Products of a sophisticated clock-making industry in Paris that required the talents of sculptors, founders, clockmakers and the tradesmen/designers who organized their manufacture and sale, these foreign-made clocks are nonetheless iconic and among the most prized possessions of American museums and collectors. Examples of the more desirable taller clocks like the two at Classical American Homes can be found in the permanent collections of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Winterthur Museum, The White House, and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the Department of State. Despite their rarity and value, Dick Jenrette has managed to acquire not only these two ormolu Washington clocks but a third as well, which he purchased for the Americana collection at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. We call that going for the gold.

Figure 2
Clock with Figure of George Washington, 1815-17. Marked (on the dial): Dubuc/Rue Michel-le-Comte No. 33/ A PARIS. On this clock, Washington’s face appears aged and is believed to derive from a portrait bust of Washington by Edward Savage, painted for Harvard College in 1789, which later was issued as a stipple engraving by Savage and by Benjamin Tanner in 1800 (see figure 4).

The salient features of these Washington clocks have been outlined by Jonathan Snellenburg in his excellent survey and analysis of them published in 2001 in the Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art, which is available online and well worth reading. On the taller clocks, these features include: [1] a full-length figure of Washington, whose pose is derived from John Trumbull’s history painting, General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton commissioned in 1792 (figure 3) and later engraved by John Cheeseman in 1796; [2] an altar-like plinth with a clock mounted in the center, surmounted by an American eagle with the motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” from the Great Seal of the United States, and across its front a festoon of drapery emblazoned with Washington’s name and the words, “First in WAR, First in PEACE, First in the HEARTS of his COUNTRYMEN,” (figure 5) taken from Major-General Henry Lee’s, Funeral Oration on the Death of General Washington, delivered to both houses of Congress on December 26, 1799 and published as a pamphlet in early 1800; [3] a handsome architectural base set on engine-turned, flattened ball feet with a bas-relief plaque depicting Washington relinquishing his sword to Congress as he prepares to return to civilian life, most likely a reference to the Roman citizen-soldier, Cincinnatus, to whom Washington was frequently compared; and [4] on the sides of the plinth applied trophies (figure 6) comprised of a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a war club suspended below a feathered headdress, attributes of the “noble savage,” a standard personification of America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Snellenburg posits that the Washington clocks were conceived as an allegory of his life and places them within the mainstream of broadsides, graphic images, and epic poetry produced following the death of Washington in 1799 that helped to transform Washington the man into the mythic “Father of his Country.” This perfectly reasonable and standard reading of the iconography has led these allegorical timepieces to often be referred to as Washington memorial clocks.

Figure 3
George Washington at the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull, 1792, oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut 1806.1.

Figure 4
G. Washington, stipple engraving after Edward Savage, 1800. Courtesy, Childs Gallery, Boston.

But allegories can have more than one meaning, as I propose is the case with these Washington clocks. A second meaning can be established only in the context of the date they were first produced and the circumstances that may have spurred their manufacture. Until recently, dating of the Washington clocks, especially when they are thought of as memorial clocks, has tended to be in the first decade of the 1800s, closer to the actual death of George Washington. Research into the Dubuc Washington clocks by Lara Pascali in 2006-2007 while a graduate student in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture proves that this earlier dating is inaccurate. Pascali discovered a revealing letter to an unnamed Baltimorean from Nicolas Dubuc known as Dubuc l’ainé, a clockmaker in Paris whose workshop shop was located at no. 33 rue Michel-le-Comte, where he worked from 1806-1817. An excerpt from this letter was published in newspapers in Baltimore, Richmond and Charleston in the spring of 1815, and reads, in part:

“The MANTLE CLOCKS, with the statue of Washington, which we had the honor to plan when you were here, are completed; and I can assure you, they are equal in elegance and intrinsic value to any work of the kind and price, ever executed in this city. They are about 18 inches long and 21 high, and will cost, with an elegant glass and everything complete, from 300 to 320 francs — I shall soon execute a small one, say 8 inches long and 15 high, which will cost, when superbly finished, from 220 to 250 francs . . . . You may rely upon it, that the statue is a good likeness of “the Father of the Republic,” as no pains and expense were spared searching the Louvre, the galleries and the hotels, which abound with efforts to perpetuate his memorable person. There are connected with this work other devices, entirely American, Which cannot fail to make it desirable to the Patriots of your country.

(for the complete ad see, Teacher’s Guide, American Collection, 2014)

Figure 5
Detail of clock in Figure 1.

Figure 6
Alternate view of clock in

Figure 1.

Figure 7
From The Evening Post, New York, December 27, 1815.

One of the related Washington clocks bears the inscription “Demilt, New Yorck [sic],” on the dial for Thomas and Benjamin Demilt partners in the retail clock and watch business at 239 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. The recent discovery of an advertisement by T. & B. Demilt in the New-York Evening Post dated December 27, 1815 that offered for sale a variety of clocks and watches, including “1 time piece with a large figure of Washington” (figure 7), provides evidence of when these clocks were first marketed in New York. Another clue as to the date for the introduction of the Washington clocks to New York appears in an ad placed over a month earlier in the New-York Evening Post on November 3, 1815 by Charles Irish, a watchmaker and importer of clocks and watches at 5 Wall Street. This ad offered for sale, among other things, “2 cases French Gold and Silver Watches” as well as “French Clocks of the most modern patterns, some with the figure of Gen. Washington, all of which will be sold low for cash or credit.” All of these 1815 references offer evidence that the Washington clocks were marketed in America from France for the first time to celebrate the United States’ glorious victory in the war of 1812 and the ensuing peace after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

In this context the Washington clocks can be read as allegories for a renewed sense of national purpose and identity, as well harbingers of the next chapter in American political life: the Era of Good Feelings, a period associated with the years of the Monroe presidency (1817-1825) and marked by a national mood of unity (E Pluribus Unum) and the lack of partisan factions. We had fought one revolution for our political freedom and now another for our commercial freedom. And Washington, the father of our nation, whose exploits and attributes were already engraved in the minds of all Americans, stood in 1815 as the great unifying symbol of the nation. Washington’s name and visage were invoked by patriots and marketers alike in a grand illumination that took place in New York to celebrate the peace on the evening of February 27, 1815. The illustrious cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe engaged one of the leading painters of the day, John Wesley Jarvis, to paint a transparency depicting the rising sun with eighteen stars and the motto “Peace,” which he backlit in the shop window surrounded by a fanciful display of his elegant furniture, as well as a chain of transparent lamps that he strung across Partition Street with a portrait of Washington in the center and ten lamps, each containing a letter that formed the word WASHINGTON.

The most intriguing question that remains is, who in Baltimore was behind the concept that resulted in the Dubuc Washington clocks? It is intriguing that this person left the details of creating an appropriate allegory through the use of symbols and devices to Dubuc, a Frenchman. But in the spirit of Lafayette and of France’s support of the American Revolution, he seemed to instinctively know how to stir American patriotism and thus created an enduring American icon.

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