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Dimensions (inches): 90" tall x 15.5" wide x 9.25" deep
Painted-decorated, tall case clock, made circa 1820-1830’s, with highly unusual form. Tall and narrow, with a rather graceful presence, note the inverted profile of the keystone-shaped base. Canted so as to be significantly narrower at the feet than at the waist molding, this terrific, folk characteristic is not only something that I have not previously encountered, but one that is especially whimsical. More dramatic in person than in images, the unexpected design has an almost cartoonish, Alice-in-Wonderland-like quality, especially on such a thin, tall case.

Adding to the clock’s beauty is the atypical, comb-style decoration, with wide swaths of red carefully applied on top of a black ground. This too is unusual, as black and red decorated furniture is usually applied in opposite fashion, in black over red, because the darker color is far easier to apply on a lighter ground. The reverse demonstrates the exceptional skill of a trained artisan and probably accounts for the attractive nature of the especially rich color. I have seen this before, but the instances are rare. Well-proportioned moldings and scrollwork complete the package; a great example for any collector of paint-decorated furniture and folk art.

The case is made of poplar and the works are of the 8-day, wooden variety typical to painted American tall clocks of the early 19th century.

Beyond this particular tall clock, I have identified three or four others in the same basic style, decorated by the same hand. Because I do not have images of one of the group, exhibited at the Columbus Museum of Art in 1984, I am uncertain if that is a different example or one I had already counted. Whatever the case may be, all of the others, including that one, have eight-day wooden works, made by Luman Watson (b. Oct. 10, 1790, d. Nov. 28, 1834,) a Cincinnati clockmaker.

Born in Harwinton CT, Watson grew up in a region that would become the heart of American clock-making in the 19th century. It is presumed that he learned the trade there, before moving to Ohio, following the migration of Americans as portions of the population spread west. Wooden works became popular in the face of a shortage of brass, and since they did travel well, demand for locally-made, reasonably priced clocks was following westward expansion.

In Cincinnati, Watson established a partnership with three brothers, Abner, Ezra, and Amassa Read. The earliest record of a sale of a Read & Watson clock occurred in 1809, in Clark County. The partnership dissolved approximately six years later, but Watson continued thereafter on his own, becoming one of the most prolific manufacturers of wooden movements. Between roughly 1815 and 1834, it is estimated that his factory, that employed between 18-25 workers, produced more than 30,000 tall clocks.

Makers of the works for tall clocks would have certainly sometimes contracted for the purchase of cases but didn’t typically produce them. One of the Read brothers, Ezra, moved to Xenia, Ohio, and produced the majority of the cases for Watson’s clocks. It has been speculated, however, that he was not responsible for the keystone-shaped cases like the one in question here. Tom Spittler of Dayton, Ohio, collector and noted authority of Ohio tall case clocks, speculated that these red and black cases were made by a Tennessee contractor. Other sources suggest that the origin may have been Kentucky. Though no reasons for the above attributions seem to have been recorded, I thought both seemed reasonable, as there seems to be a Southern flare to the design that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I think another scenario might be worthy of consideration. Of Watson’s numerous employees, one, by the name of Hiram Powers (b. Jul. 29, 1805, d. Jun. 27, 1873), became famous in his own right, as one of America’s most important 19th century sculptors, and one of the only ever to obtain an international reputation. Born in Woodstock, Vermont, Powers moved to Cincinnati at age 14 and at the age of 17, went to work for Luman Watson. Artists of Powers’ level were usually good at numerous artistic things, even if they became famous for just one. The red and black decoration on this clock is something I would expect to see in New England, and a Vermont attribution would be a reasonable one, if all other factors were unknown. Both the style of the case and the painting are reminiscent of paint-decorated, 19th century, Vermont furniture, in both color, size, and style. For this reason, I can’t help but wonder if there is a Powers relationship to these particular paint-decorated tall clocks with the red-over-black application, narrow format, and keystone-shaped bases.

Although the face on this particular clock does not bear the Lyman Watson name, it seems reasonable to assume that the works were probably Watson-made. With the sheer number that he was producing, it stands to reason that not all faces were marked. In the case of antique American flags—an unrelated specialty of mine—no makers marked their flags prior to 1850, and those that did from 1850-1912 were, as a rule, extremely inconsistent in their decision apply a mark from one example to the next. Perhaps in the interest of saving time and filling orders, application of a maker’s mark wasn’t of the utmost concern. Alternatively, it may be that the face was at some point replaced. Whatever the case may be, this is a period face, with an oval medallion as its luminary, painted with a basket of pink peonies, and matching floral elements that flank each corner of the dial, fully expected on a clock of this era.

Watson’s business likely suffered after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which brough great numbers of cheaper, Connecticut-made clocks. This basically put an end to Ohio clockmaking. As tall clocks began to fall from popularity around 1820, by 1830, Watson had shifted his focus to mantel and shelf clocks. He passed soon after, in the latter part of 1834. Condition: The case at some point sustained damage to the rear feet. Narrow, vertical replacements were made to the rear of these, about .75” wide and 6 inches tall. These were expertly painted to match. These look terrific. Clean breaks in the scrolling in the fretwork were previously repaired by re-gluing them. Little to no repainting seems to have been necessary here. This was expertly done and likewise presents exceptionally well. With every clock I acquire, I send the works to someone who services antique clocks, to go over it and do anything necessary to get it running properly. Repairs were made to worn posts and gears, etc. New weights were provided to apply the correct tension to the movement and chimes, as well as a better pendulum to properly operate it. The face was sightly adjusted. The previous lower support bar was removed, and another was applied, in the same position, but shimmed to make it level with the case.
Primary Color: red, black
Earliest Date: 1810
Latest Date: 1834
For Sale Status: Available
Price $16,500
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