Thursday, 18 December 2014

A History of the Longcase Clock by Trevor Waddington Part 1

Lantern clock by William Bowyer c. 1630
© Trustees of the British Museum   

The British longcase or grandfather clock, as it became known after the popular song ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ written by the American Henry C. Work in 1876, has its origins in the mid-17th century.   

The first domestic clocks to be housed in long cases were brass lantern clocks. Initially lantern clocks were hung high on the wall with the driving weights and ropes hanging down to the floor, the disadvantage of this being that children and domestic animals could interfere with the workings of the clock.  The solution to this problem was to house the clock in a long wooden case with a hood to access the dial and a lockable trunk door to give access to the weights.  The introduction of the anchor escapement and 39-inch (1-second beat) pendulum in 1671 made the need for a longcase even more necessary.

An architectural longcase clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, c.1665.  © Trustees of the British Museum 

Makers such as Edward East, Joseph Knibb and Thomas Tompion, who made clocks for royalty and the wealthy, made the first true longcase clocks in London during the last quarter of the 17th century.  These clocks usually had 8-day movements, square brass dials and were housed in finely proportioned ebonised cases of ‘architectural’ design. 

Longcase clock in marquetry case with scrolls, foliage and birds of paradise by John Draper 1700-1710
© Trustees of the British Museum   

Around 1700, cases of walnut or olivewood with veneered marquetry or parquetry (geometric) decoration became fashionable.  



The flat-top hoods often had barley twist columns and originally had carved pediments, of which few have survived.   

Many of these early longcases had a glass lenticle in the trunk to display the newly invented long or ‘Royal’ pendulum. 


 Image credit: Trevor Waddington

It should be noted that during the 17th and 18th centuries the name on the clock dial was normally that of the clockmaker.  The cabinetmaker who made the clock case was subordinate to the clockmaker and only very rarely ‘signed’ his work inside the case.  

[This article appeared previously in The Primrose, the newsletter of the Friends of Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre. To be continued] 

Trevor Waddington is a retired Royal Navy engineer officer who ran an antique clocks conservation-restoration business in Wiltshire before moving to Budleigh Salterton in 2012. He is a Trustee of Fairlynch Museum.

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