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"Rhode Island Clockmaking, from Claggett to Durfee"
The Annual Symposium of the
NAWCC New England Chapter
Brings To Light Little-Known Clockmakers and Cabinetmakers
of Our Smallest State

By Jeanne Schinto

Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, December 2004

It's often lamented that few young dealers are entering the antiques business. But plenty of young scholars have found academic riches in the field. One of them is Dennis Carr, a doctoral candidate in art history at Yale University. Carr was one of four featured speakers at the annual symposium of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors' New England chapter on Saturday, October 2, 2004. The event drew 40 participants to the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art in Providence. The topic: Rhode Island clockmaking.Carr gave a lecture, illustrated with slides, describing his part in an ongoing study of the entire sweep of Rhode Island furniture making. The project is under the direction of Patricia E. Kane, curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery. The idea of the study, said Carr, is to "map out a landscape of the trade," to put everybody into context, not just the name brands. A lot of objects are attributed to "a vague Goddard-Townsend school," but nearly 800 other cabinetmakers, joiners, and turners were at work in the state from the colonial period to the early nineteenth century. Some of them were literal neighbors of the Newport block-and-shell deities. Benjamin Baker, for example, lived down the street from John Townsend (1732-1809). Active in Newport in the 1760s and 1770s, Baker worked for a time in Townsend's shop. Baker is especially interesting, because his 80-page account book has survived and is available for study at the Newport Historical Society. The account books of eighteenth-century cabinetmakers otherwise, no matter where they lived and worked, are scarce. One slide shown by Carr was a page from Baker's book, noting that he had made a clock case for Caleb Allen in 1765. Cost: £150 (colonial Rhode Island currency).Carr told the group he thought it fair to say that "a certain mythology has grown up around Goddard and Townsend." He told us in conversation later: "I don't want to diminish them. I just want to give others their historical due." Ironically, he said, the Yale project may lead to fresh knowledge about Goddard's and Townsend's cabinetmaking antecedents. It almost certainly will lead to new information about Rhode Island clockmakers and the predominantly anonymous craftsmen who were part of their enterprises.Some members of the New England chapter made a point of staying away from this symposium. Their complaint: it was going to be too much about the "furniture" part of clocks and not enough about clocks' innards. (Last year's topic was electric horology, with plenty of technical content for most clock enthusiasts.) Symposium organizer Bob Frishman made no apologies for the choice. "We're principally on the outsides of the clocks today," Frishman, the chapter's past president, said in his remarks to the group. In the wider world of antiques, clocks <I>are<D> furniture, and no one would argue that clockmakers in our smallest state have ever been given their scholarly due.Certainly the clocks in the RISD museum are on display "in the context of furniture," said decorative-arts curator Thomas S. Michie. This is true particularly of the clocks in Pendleton House, a Georgian-style mansion built to comply with a bequest to the museum from Charles L. Pendleton (1846-1904). Pendleton is the man who enabled RISD to become a museum leader. When Pendleton House opened in 1906, it was the first museum wing dedicated to the exhibition of American decorative arts in this country. Pendleton's idea of a house for his collection logically followed another radical notion of his. He introduced to collectors a whole new way of displaying decorative arts. Rather than lining them up like so many natural-history specimens, he put them in aesthetically pleasing arrangements. It is, of course, the way we're used to seeing them displayed today.Pendleton, a Rhode Island native, is also famous for being a dealer -- and a gambler. In some instances, he may have combined the two skills. There are, to put it nicely, some questionable pieces in Pendleton House. "I don't rush to call them fakes," said Michie, using instead the mitigating term "revivals." In his talk Michie compared "real" versus "revival," using slides for side-by-side comparisons -- of, for example, a real carved shell and a revival shell. His stated aim was "not to show how bad the revival is, but how good it is."Michie has concluded that Pendleton "probably" wasn't trying to deceive. "He probably commissioned these pieces. But we don't know for sure." Deciding whether something in the collection is genuine or a revival is difficult, he added. "So I'm glad that I can walk away and come back to take a look another day." Looking at the objects is virtually the only research methodology the museum has. "There are very few documents," said Michie. "The collection remains the best means to its interpretation."One Rhode Island man who well understood that clocks are furniture -- and the bigger and heavier the better -- was Pendleton's executor, Walter H. Durfee (1857-1939). Owen Burt of Rochester, Michigan, spoke to the group about Durfee's career. A former national office-holder of the NAWCC, Burt is currently a team member of the NAWCC's "Answer Box," a column published in the organization's bimonthly Bulletin. Burt's talk was taken largely from an article he wrote about Durfee for the Bulletin. As Burt noted, although Pendleton and Durfee were briefly partners in the antiques business ("partners in crime" -- Michie's phrase), Durfee alone re-introduced the tall clock to the American public.Readers may be surprised to learn that the history of tall-clock popularity in this country does not trace one unbroken line from David Rittenhouse to Howard Miller. After the patent timepiece -- or "banjo" clock -- was invented by Simon Willard in 1802, the tall-clock industry stalled. When wooden-works shelf clocks came along in the 1820s, the tall-clock business was virtually extinguished as people switched to the smaller and cheaper alternatives. Between the 1830s and 1890s, tall clocks were considered old-fashioned, even reviled, and many of them went into landfills. When Providence-born Durfee revived the style, he did so by marketing a larger, grander, and more embellished version and by capitalizing on the nostalgia factor that the old timekeepers had come to represent. Their still-common nickname, "grandfather clock," was coined just prior to the Durfee era, when the sheet music for the song, "My Grandfather's Clock" by Henry Clay Work, was published in 1876. (Work's wife was the granddaughter of the original grandfather who owned a tall-case clock.)Burt told symposium participants how to recognize a Durfee tall clock. They're hard to miss. In huge (often nearly nine feet tall) mahogany cases, ornately carved, they usually have three-weight, moon-phased, British-made movements that chime on a five- or nine-tube system. "Durfee went to extremes," said Burt.The tubes were patented by their British manufacturer, named Harrington. Durfee obtained the rights as sole agent in United States for the Harrington tubes. But in 1904 he lost a court case that challenged his monopoly. "And by 1908," said Burt, "every clockmaker in America" -- or so it seemed -- "had gotten into the chiming hall-clock business."Yes, that's "hall," not "tall" clock -- because most people put them in their foyers, where ceilings could accommodate their height. In auction catalogs today, that's how they're usually described. And they are going up in value both at public and private sales. At Northeast Auctions in Manchester, New Hampshire, on March 6-7, 2004, a Durfee hall clock sold for $29,900, an auction record. Within the same year, one sold privately for $50,000.Durfee exited the hall-clock business after losing the court case -- he was being hopelessly undersold -- and began to sell reproduction banjos, lyre clocks, and girandoles. Shortly before his death, Durfee's nephew joined the firm. Burt referred to Chester Durfee's tenure, 1930 to 1950, as a "gray area," and told collectors to be wary. Chester "had a tendency to paint Walter's name on a few clocks," said Burt.Paul J. Foley was the only speaker of the day who went "behind the dial," so to speak. Author of Willard's Patent Time Pieces: A History of the Weight-Driven Banjo Clock 1800-1900 (2002), he presented a slide lecture showing how banjo clocks made by David Williams (1769-1823) of Newport differ from those made in Roxbury and Boston by the Willards and others. The Williams examples, made between 1815 and 1820, are not easily identified by a signature, because Williams usually signed on the throat glass not the dial, and if the glass was broken, there went his name.Williams clocks' cases have wide frames, often made of flat mahogany but also gilt and (rarely) reeded mahogany. They all have sharp-edged bezels. A wide squat ogee chimney holds each clock's top finial in place. The clock's head cutout is heavy and of equal thickness all around. Its pendulum tie-down is mounted above rather than below the pendulum bob.From Foley's perspective, however, the biggest difference of all lies with the movement. Williams's are in the shape of an "A." Virtually all other banjo movements are rectangular.Such a radical variation may have been an attempt by Williams to bypass Simon Willard's patent, Foley surmised. Or it could merely have been a manifestation of Williams's own genius. What Foley could state emphatically was exciting to those more interested in cabinetmaking history than horology. While no Willard-clock case makers are known, Williams's cases can be attributed by way of Newport probate records to John Young (1797-1884) of Newport. In records for 1823 Foley found an unpaid bill signed by Young for "32 mahogany timepiece cases." Young left no signed furniture that has been identified, but the characteristics of his clock-case making may lead new scholars to them in the future.For more information about the NAWCC, its chapters and its programs, call (717) 684-8261 or see the Web site ( For more information about the RISD Museum of Art, call (401) 454-6500 or see its Web site (
Dennis Carr: With the exception of the two big names, Goddard and Townsend, few Rhode Island cabinetmakers are known. Those two families of craftsmen "continue to cast a long shadow in the field," said Dennis Carr. "[As a result] we're missing the larger picture." Currently Carr is part of a team engaged in a major study of all Rhode Island cabinetmakers. The research has taken Carr and others to primary sources scattered in tiny archives in towns throughout the state. Last summer, Carr found 50 court cases involving clockmaker William Claggett between 1730 and his death in Newport 1749. The number was more than any other furniture maker Carr was tracking. "The cases were mostly from the seventeen-forties," said Carr, and "mostly 'against,'" stemming from his alleged failure to pay back loans or debts.Carr also found a bond signed by William Claggett and two apprentices, Claggett's own son William, Jr., and James Wady. Since bonds were often witnessed by apprentices, the documents can reliably match masters with those who followed them.Another Claggett clockmaker, the one who may have achieved the most, was Thomas (b. 1730?) of Newport. In several standard horology reference books Thomas is said to have died in 1749. ("Died mysteriously, naked body found in swamp," read the lines in American Clockmakers & Watchmakers 2000 by Sonya L. & Thomas J. Spittler, and Chris H. Bailey.) But the "fact" seems actually to be an error-made-truth by repetition. Besides, young scholar Carr cited documents, early newspaper references, and eminent objects from Thomas Claggett's workshop with dates into the 1770s. (Apparently forgotten research by the late Richard Champlin, published in the NAWCC's Bulletin in 1979, cites similar information about Thomas Claggett and his clocks; further, Champlin's data put Claggett's nude body in the swamp in 1797.) One of Thomas Claggett's signed tall clocks descended in the Brown family of Rhode Island; today it is at Old Sturbridge Village, where Carr has examined it. The case maker, according to a handwritten label inside, was Benjamin Baker. Symposium participants saw a slide of the page from Thomas Claggett's account book, where the case is itemized. Claggett bought the case from Baker on August 3, 1772, for £140 (colonial Rhode Island currency).At the end of his talk, Carr said: "Our project depends on the advice of people on the outside -- people sending us photographs of new objects or sharing with us information that they may have discovered. We are always grateful for this information." Send email to him at Schinto photoRobert Cheney & David Wood: At lunchtime, Robert Cheney (on left) and David Wood chatted in the RISD museum's garden. Cheney of Brimfield, Massachusetts, is the well-known clock expert; Wood is curator of the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. After the symposium, at our request, Cheney offered these emailed comments about the state of the Rhode Island clock market:"When you look at the marketplace, Rhode Island clocks are very much in demand. Of all the clocks made in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rhode Island clocks hold the highest sale price records." In January 2000, at Christie's, Cheney noted, a Newport tall clock by James Wady, in a block-and-shell-carved case attributed to Job Townsend, made $442,500. ("It bought by me on behalf of a client.") In October 2000, again at Christie's, a Providence tall clock by Samuel Rockwell, in a block-and-shell-carved case of the Goddard-Townsend school, brought $611,000, an auction record for an American clock . In January 2002, at another Christie's sale, a James Wady surpassed it, bringing $666,000. (At Sotheby's in January 2004, the record was broken again when an English musical clock in a Philadelphia mahogany case made $803,200.) "It is clear that the interest in these clocks lies not only in the complicated movements and dials by these important makers, but also in the elegant cases attributed to the Goddard-Townsend cabinetmakers."Rhode Island patent timepieces are seen less frequently than those made in Boston in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Cheney continued. And when they do come to light? "You find that they have suffered the same indignities of neglect and abuse that their Boston counterparts have: replacement reverse-paintings on glass, re-gilded frames and pedestals, and fraudulent names on the dials. Also like their Boston counterparts, they bring prices all over the map, largely representing condition." At Christie's, in January 1998, a patent timepiece by Job Wilbour of Newport in exceptional condition, with a lower glass depicting the "Constitution's Escape," brought $50,000 on the hammer. ("I purchased it on behalf of a client.") Another Newport timepiece by Job Wilbour, in a case by David Williams, brought $11,788 at Willis Henry last February.Finally, Cheney offered this conclusion: "In short, form, condition, maker -- and sometimes just plain dumb luck -- all dictate the prices realized on handcrafted clocks from any geographic area." Schinto photoCaleb Wheaton tall clock & Leigh Needleman: An open door and removed bonnet on a clock case are common sights at an auction preview, but not at a museum. So it was a rare opportunity when the museum's decorative-arts curator Tom Michie gamely got some clocks running and allowed symposium participants, like Leigh Needleman (pictured), to have a peek at their works. (Some long-tenured museum guards remarked that it was nice to hear them striking and chiming in the galleries and in Pendleton House.)This clock, with a silver-plated brass dial signed by Caleb Wheaton of Providence (1757-1827), stands on the second-floor landing in the museum's Pendleton House. Clocks by Caleb Wheaton in block-and-shell cases like this one are often attributed to the shop of John Goddard of Newport. This one is "firmly attributed" by the museum to the general shop traditions of the Goddards and Townsends.In 1983, the case was repaired and refinished by Robert Walker. There was good reason for the restoration. In 1815, while the clock was standing in its original location in downtown Providence's Washington Tavern and Hotel, the so-called Great Gale visited the city. The hurricane caused waters to rise to 12 feet above the spring tide mark. A tideline about five feet high remains faintly visible on the clock's backboard. The partial immersion "probably accounts for the loss of the original bracket feet and the deterioration of several glued moldings," Tom Michie wrote in American Furniture in Pendleton House (1986). Schinto photoTom Michie's feet & the Caleb Wheaton tall clock's bonnet: After curator Tom Michie removed the bonnet on the Caleb Wheaton, he stood guard by it. Nobody, least of all Michie, wanted to hear the sound of shattering glass. Schinto photoOwen Burt & Paul Foley: Two symposium speakers, Owen Burt (on left) and Paul J. Foley, got acquainted before the symposium began. Burt, a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors for 35 years and a one-time national office holder of the organization, spoke about Walter Durfee, the man who re-popularized tall clocks at the end of the nineteenth century. Foley, a former FBI agent, has been studying the weight-driven banjo clock since 1972. He published his definitive history of the weight-driven banjo clock in 2002 and continues his study of this important aspect of uniquely American horology. The subject of Foley's talk in Providence was the distinctive style of banjo clocks made by David Williams of Newport, a Willard contemporary. Schinto photoWalter Durfee lyre clock & Durfee tall clock: When Walter Durfee lost his patent for the tubes on chiming hall clocks, he started making lyre clocks like this one. Both of these Durfee examples are in the collection of RISD's Providence neighbor, Brown University. Schinto photosTom Michie at the lunch in the garden: After lunch, Tom Michie gathered everyone together for a museum tour.David Williams clock exterior & interior: This weight-driven banjo by David Williams of Newport hangs in an upstairs room of Pendleton House. The throat glass in the case is signed "D. Williams." The unique "A-shape" movement inside it is characteristic of this clockmaker and no other. Paul J. Foley photos


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