What makes it tick

I mean that a little more metaphorically than literally.  I know that the pendulum and the escapement is what make it tick. I’m talking about the features of the Roxbury clock.

If you buy a new clock today you might look at Howard Miller clocks.  I recall my grandfather built his first from a kit sold by Emperor Clock (now out of business I believe), similar to companies like Klockit or Murray Clock.  These newer clock styles share some features of the 19th Century clocks for sure, but I see a lot of differences from what I aspire to build.

Here’s a clock my grandfather built.  It’s his 8th case and was completed in 1984.  Next to it is an Aaron Willard Jr clock with the case by John Doggett, ca 1825 (NY Museum of Fine Art).

GPa_VIII_1984        AWillard_Dogget

I’m not picking on my grandfather by any stretch – that was the style and what he liked.  Proportionally it looks well-balanced I think.  It looks very similar to many modern clocks that are made to look like period pieces.  A new trend though since he made this – I think – is that the modern makers seem to favor the straight sides instead of the narrower waist of the majority of period clocks.  Look at the Howard Miller website.  Grandpa’s clocks all used a narrow waist that is more in harmony with the period clocks.  I think the clocks look a little more elegant like that – the straight sides make them look massive and cumbersome.  I wonder if the straight sides are influenced by the crazy large pendulums.  Some even add space for curios, etc…

Roxbury DNA

So starting at the top, it’s easy to note the elaborate scrollwork.  Grandpa’s is a broken arch with scroll which was also a popular late 18th Century and early 19th Century design.  The Roxbury clocks frequently include brass finials – usually ball spires but often one or more eagles.  I like the delicacy of the scrollwork – it adds lightness to what could be a massive looking pieces.  There’s an enormous variety in the historical examples of Roxbury clocks – some are more organic than others.

Many of the dials of the period seemed to be brass, similar to Grandpa’s.  This doesn’t seem as popular for the Roxbury clocks.  Most are painted and the complexity of the painting varies wildly and likely was a factor in the price of the clock.  More elaborate painting would have increased the cost – just like more elaborate cabinet work.  Grandpa’s clock shows a moon dial to indicate the phase of the moon.  This was somewhat popular in the Roxbury clocks though I think most feature a small vignette at the top.  According to MoFA the painting in this Willard clock is a popular War of 1812 naval battle scene.  Less popular were other “automatons” like a rocking ship that moves with the pendulum (see below).  Seems kind of fun.  These clocks also frequently had a calendar dial in the center.  If there was a second-hand it would be on a separate dial within the larger dial.  By the way this Willard clock is a bit different than many as it does not use Roman Numerals.

Grandpa turned the full pillars on the sides of the hood and the Roxbury’s have that as well.  The difference is that the Roxbury pillars are typically reeded or grooved and frequently include brass rods near the base, inset into the grooves.  See the photo below of a Simon Willard at MoFA.  Also the bases and capitals of the columns are brass work instead of turned.  Sometimes they are turned but more frequently seem to be brass – sometimes even in a Corinthian (acanthus leaf) design.

SWillard_MoFAThe sides of the hood frequently include a window (light) to see the works.  I’m not certain of the reason but it seems possible it is a means to watch the movement.  After all that’s what you were really buying.

I’m not going to get into the works too much in this post.  It’s all a little over my head but I’ve talked before that the clock makers got the glory and their names on dials – not the cabinet makers.

Moving down the waist.  It seems nearly all clocks before the middle of the 19th century had solid doors, not the glass doors so popular today.  I’ve postulated that the weights and the pendulum were nothing to look at early on.  Later, as efforts increased to improve accuracy, the pendulum became something worth looking at.  I expect they wanted to show it off.  In the Roxbury examples they almost always seem to be veneered with highly figured material.  Often there will be inlay – either a banding or stringing.  The Aaron Willard Jr above shows a simple cross banding and a lip moulding around the door.  Occasionally there will be a piece of paterae marquetry – but not frequently in the Roxburys.  Flanking the waist door on the Roxbury clocks are quarter columns similar to those on the hood, including stopped brass rods and brass capitals and bases.

Moving down the base, they frequently echo the appearance of the waist doors.  Grandpa’s is a frame and panel construction.  The Roxburys seem to be simple boxes with applied veneer.  Again a few Roxburys show paterae and/or stringing.  Modern examples at Howard Miller show the door going nearly to the floor – there is no enclosed base in most cases.  The Roxbury bases are frequently based on a French foot as opposed to the bracket feet you might find on Chippendale style or other furniture.  Below you can see a French foot next to a more traditional bracket foot.

feetThere’s probably more to the major features of the Roxbury clock cases than that and I can’t wait to figure it all out.  Not everyone finds these clocks attractive, but I certainly think that when well proportioned they are the most beautiful clocks ever made in this country.

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One Response to What makes it tick

  1. Tom Myers says:

    I tend to agree with most of your preferences in tall clock styling. My own clock is from an Emperor kit and it appears to be the same case as your grandfather’s. Mine is in cherry. I built it in 1977. My real preferance, though, is for the Willard style clocks with the scroll work on the hood. I’m no fan at all of the slab sided clocks with all the glass that you see so much of today, including most of the Howard Miller styles. Bring back the waist style clock!

    I’m anxious to see what you come up with in this next project.

    May you and your family have a great new year,
    Tom Myers

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