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Are Longcase Clocks really an English invention?

The wheel, the age of  the steam engine and motor cars have each transformed our lives in turn but what about the invention of the clock. Do we ever ask ourselves how this invention has affected our lives and how important is it to us all ?. Well the clock affects our daily lives more than any other invention but because we take this incredible piece of science for granted do we ever stop and ask ourselves who invented clocks and the subdivision of time?.

In the beginning of the very first days of time, the middle ages of European life was based upon agriculture and controlled by the seasons. Events could only be recorded as occurring at, for example, dawn or mid-day, since no precise time could be given.

The monasteries, which were the centres of learning, had their days divided into the seven canonical hours of Martins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers. At these times a bell was tolled to call the monks to prayer. The only way of knowing the time was by unreliable time-candles, waterclocks and sandglasses, all of which would be checked against the sun dial. Since the monasteries urgently needed an improved timekeeper , it seems probable that the mechanical clock was invented by the monks. In fact in England our oldest made recorded surviving clocks are the huge iron open framed clocks from Salisbury cathedral, built in 1386 and Wells Cathedral thought to be only a few years later but both built by the same family of monks, and so the life changing invention of the clock seems to be a shared development between several different European countries.

The longcase clock or sometimes called grandfather clock really started to take hold and develop in England around 1660, when in 1658 the very first Longcase clock was actually developed by a talented Huguenot family of Flemish origin called Fromanteel who had settled in East Anglia around the sixteenth century. His advertisement of a longcase clock in 1658 was of tremendous importance, since during that time the basic designs of  both mechanism and case were evolved. It is also in many peoples opinion the very start of England’s supremacy in the field of clockmaking and its rapid development from there on for the next 200-years. Who would have thought that this kick-start to our English clockmaking would be delivered from a clever, gifted man of Flemish origin called Fromanteel. Maybe he didn’t realise at the time the huge significance his invention would have, but it did change the course of history for English clockmaking for ever. So brilliant was his initial design to the longcase format that it didn’t really ever change for the next 250-years after his first advertised clock in 1658. This must be credited as an outstanding achievement in terms of winning design. During this period in time also came the revolutionary invention of the pendulum by Christiaan Huygens of Leiden in 1657. This very simple length of steel or brass strip with a flat round brass covered lead bob attached to the end with a simple form of thread adjustment for rating the speed of clock of almost a meter length, would be adopted from there on to almost every longcase clock made for the next 250-years. Except for only a few very early experimental examples, which used a 1 and 1/4 seconds pendulum. The slow gradual swing of the pendulum has a calming  60-seconds beat which is very close to our heart rate and perhaps sometimes responsible for putting us to sleep without realising it. A collection of scientists young and old, including Galileo, had been previously working for many years on the problem of applying the pendulum to a clock which if successful, would have resulted in a much better accuracy for clocks, but it was Christiaan Huygens who was first to succeed in this field.

 Longcase Clocks were made in different various centuries, woods, styles and mechanical formats. So how do we date the clock which we see at our local auction rooms which is crying out to be bought by some new prospective buyer. Is it going to be our dream purchase forever or our marriage in hell ?, marriage meaning not the correct movement for the case. Well there are a few hard and fast rules to buying a longcase clock which will help the decision making process a little easier but they are not to be taken for granted as gospel truth because in the very late 19th/20th century earlier designs were thrust together in a mishmash of styles. This means that a Georgian looking clock could actually to the untrained eye really turn out to be just a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a Victorian look a like or more politely put revival, but that’s not to say that it isn’t still the bargain of the day, its just not as old as we had initially thought. The first and I say loose rule is that longcase clocks with a brass dials are generally older than the ones with painted dials, brass dials ran from 1660 to 1790 but were revived again in 1880. The painted dial design started around 1790-1800 and ran till the mid to late Victorian period. England produced country made longcase clocks from just about every conceivable town or tiny village you will find on a map of Britain, many of these remote places you will never even have heard of. The country made longcase clocks are generally made from oak or a combination of oak and mahogany and their cases were more simply constructed sometimes by local carpenters rather than cabinet makers. They have 30-hour movements as opposed to the 8-day type which are easy to detect due to the absence of the winding holes in the dial, and are wound on a daily basis from a chain or endless rope which hangs out of the bottom of the mechanism. The 8-day longcase clocks are generally more desirable, expensive and are better investments because of the fact that they come in a more attractive range of woods such as mahogany, walnut and marquetry cases also having to wind them daily by pulling a chain or rope is a less attractive feature to the rigours of our busy modern day lives. It is sometimes easy to look at a country made longcase clock and initially think it is older than it really is. This is because some of the main centres of excellence for clockmaking such as London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Manchester were so far ahead in terms of design and quality that they made late 18th century rural country longcase clocks look earlier than they really were. So be careful!. One handed clocks are generally found on 30-hour country made longcase clocks where time was less important and were produced from 1680-1750. The sight of a one handed clock creates a good talking point amongst friends and family.

Scottish longcase clocks were made to the highest standards, their cases were quite often made in very high quality workshops where a exclusive design was used, which makes Scottish longcase clocks very distinctive. They usually had a fine quality flame mahogany bowed or sometimes called belly trunk doors (as known in the trade), flanking the sides were either halved or solid mahogany trunk columns. Above the belly door was a shaped cresting with a small carved mahogany acorn. The dials were more than often based on Scottish stories, The lady of the lake, The Cotters Saturday night out, The Four Seasons, also sometimes they have pictures of writers such as Burns and Ramsey etc. The oil paint finish is unique which was made by adding small brass filings to the paint giving a metallic looking finish to the tiny painted dial scenes. Another style of  Scottish longcase clocks are where the cases are slightly more plain and less fussy. They don’t have the halved or full hood trunk columns or belly door. Their cases are totally rectangular in shape and the hoods are flat topped and are always dis-proportionally long to the whole case. They look slightly top heavy in appearance.

Longcase clock prices have risen steadily over the past 10-years due to the practicability of them and also the fact that they cross purpose as pieces of furniture and clocks. A good quality mahogany longcase clock can be bought from any reputable clock dealer for around £5,500-£6,500,

however a late Georgian III London made example will set you back roughly around twice that amount. Sales room prices are usually around half that amount but do incur restoration costs and a large risk  factor that the movement may have been fitted from another clock and is not of the correct type or period. So always if buying at auction get advice from a friendly professional first, ask them to check  out the originality of the piece. Being a clock dealer at Gutlin Clocks, London for the past 10-years I have been lucky enough to enjoy seeing many beautiful pieces and have had great pleasure in setting up the clocks in their new prospective homes.

Mark Coxhead Gutlin Clocks, London