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English Domestic Clocks

(Below): Ebony longcase clock, by Joseph Knibb of London, c. 1670.

Ebony longcase clock, by Joseph Knibb of London, c. 1670.

(Below): Marquetry longcase clock, by Richard Lyons of London, c. 1680.

Marquetry longcase clock, by Richard Lyons of London, c. 1680.

The large public mechanical clock began appearing in English monasteries in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It is not known when the domestic chamber clock - more the product of the locksmith than the blacksmith - first appeared, but the skills of the clockmaker in England were evidently in short supply and for many centuries continental craftsmen - especially German and Flemish - found employment here.

Native craftsmen became more numerous towards the end of the sixteenth century, but were supplemented by a fresh wave of Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in France and the Netherlands. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the first recognisable English clock, the lantern, had evolved. Deriving from the medieval iron chamber clock, the lantern quickly developed into an all-brass cased clock with a weight-driven thirty-hour striking movement surmounted by a bell. The dial, often elaborately engraved in the centre, had a single hour hand even on later eighteenth-century examples.

Lantern clock, by Benjamin Stribling of Stowmarket, c. 1700,

(Above): Lantern clock, by Benjamin Stribling of Stowmarket, c. 1700,

The earliest example in the museum, c. 1695, is by Benjamin Stribling of Stowmarket. This is a full-sized lantern clock with the standard five finials, and three frets above the movement. The four feet are for decorative purposes only as these clocks were hung from a hoop at the rear like a real lantern. Three other examples in the collection include a small timepiece and alarm by Gascoigne and a fine Bury St. Edmunds clock by Mark Hawkins senior.

War and religious persecution in Europe, coupled with the later Stuart kings' interest in science and horology were sufficient to establish London as the principal centre of horological industry by the end of the seventeenth century.

New pendulum technology, first developed in the Netherlands by Hughens in the 1650s was quickly adopted and improved by English makers. In particular, the recoil escapement which reduced the arc of swing of a pendulum to just a few degrees - and improved its accuracy accordingly - led directly to the second and most enduringly popular English clock, the longcase.

The longcase clock developed naturally from a practical method of protecting the new long pendulums which were too vulnerable when applied to the lantern. The earliest longcases, like the examples by Knibb and Clement were small and narrow to accommodate the generally low ceilings of the time, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century they had increased dramatically in height. Case styles evolved rapidly from the severe ebonised architectural style of Knibb to the elaborate marquetry cases such as those of Windmill, Lyons and johnson. The eighteenth century saw a return to a more subdued case in walnut and mahogany veneer, the most notable exception to this being the oriental styled 'japanned' cases. By the early nineteenth century demand for these clocks led to a reduction in their height and the more general use of cheaper woods such as oak.

Although the style of longcase movements evolved and varied considerably over the years, the standard product was either of thirty-hours or eight-days duration. However, some were of one-month duration like the Lyons and de Charmes, but these required a heavier driving weight. Of greater rarity are year-going movements like the Russel of Wooton, requiring massive weights of sixty and eighty pounds. Although most longcases strike the hour only, some include quarter striking or alarm mechanisms like the Allam and the Windmills, while very expensive clocks like the Robson and Nash include musical trains playing popular tunes of the day. In 1760, the painted iron dial began to replace the more expensive brass style and was almost universal by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Ebonised bracket clock by Thomas Tompion of London, c. 1700.

(Above): Ebonised bracket clock by Thomas Tompion of London, c. 1700.

Large weight-driven wall clocks, known as tavern clocks began to appear in the early eighteenth century. Public rather than domestic clocks, they were mostly housed in japanned cases like the two museum examples by Schofield and Chaplin.

Spring-driven table clocks probably evolved from the desire to make clocks portable within a large house, and thus reduce the enormous cost of purchasing several clocks. English 'bracket' clocks as they are known, almost always have carrying handles for this purpose. The magnificent ebonised quarter repeating example by Thomas Tompion has a strike/silent facility so that the bell can be silenced when required. The same facility is found on later clocks long after the need for portability had gone.

The museum houses examples by the most illustrious English horologists. By the 1840s, England's well-established supremacy was to face a challenge from America that would overwhelm it.