A Timely Show, Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches at The Frick Collection
No better time to check out this small gem of an exhibit at The Frick Collection than now. The magnolia trees are in bloom, and there’s arguably no better spot in town to watch nature’s glory unfold than from inside the new Portico Gallery of the Gilded Age mansion, which has floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the Fifth Avenue Garden.
Former home of Pittsburgh steel magnate and art patron Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the museum has a world-renowned collection of Old Master paintings and European sculpture and decorative arts. In 1999, Winthrop Kellogg Edey, a lifelong collector of antique clocks, gave the museum 38 timepieces — 25 of which (11 clocks and 14 watches) are now on view at The Frick, which boasts one of the most significant public collections of European clocks and watches in the US. These items, together with five clocks on loan from collector Horace Wood Block, comprise the current exhibition.
A tribute to art and a tribute to science, the elaborate gilded works on display date from the early 16th to the 19th century. Their provenance: England, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. They were valued as much for their artistry and craft as for their functionality. They were status items in many cases, especially the early clocks and watches, which were imprecise and not reliable. They signified a person’s wealth and taste. Napoleon, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and the daughters of Louis XV were just some of the many rich and famous people who coveted them.
The show at The Frick, the curators tell us, traces the “evolution over the centuries of more accurate and complex timepieces," all the while chronicling the “aesthetic developments that reflected Europe’s latest styles," such as its embrace of neoclassicism in the late 18th century, a reaction to the rococo style that was so popular with the court of Louis XV and throughout Europe.
The clocks are noteworthy for their cases, the architecture that houses and embellishes delicate mechanisms tracking time — traditional time, calendrical time, even astronomical time, as is the case with 17th century clockmaker David Weber’s two-foot-tall 'tower clock', which has seven dials, including a central astrolabe dial. Crafted from gold, silver, gilt bronze and brass, malachite, marble and porcelain, the cases are adorned with columns, pediments, classical statues, crowns of laurel, and mythological figures, an obvious bow to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
One standout piece among many: Garniture of One Clock and Two Vases (c. 1764), a trio of Chinese Qing dynasty vases made from a rare porcelain, celadon bleu fleuri. To suit the current fashion — "French collectors’ perpetual quest for increasingly more elaborate and novel luxury items" — a clock mechanism with a gilded snake to indicate the time was added to one of the vases soon after the items arrived in France; gilt bronze mounts with neoclassical architectural motifs embellish all three.
The watches are equally refined and, like the early clocks, the first watches were more status markers than timekeepers. Watches became more accurate after the introduction of the balance spring in 1675. (For clocks, the introduction of the pendulum clock in 1653 marked a turning point, making for more precise time measurements.)
Chavannes le Jeune (active c. 1650–1660), enameling attributed to Pierre Huaud (1612–1680), Gold and Enamel Pendant Watch, c. 1660, The Frick Collection, New York, Bequest of Winthrop Kellogg Edey; photo: Richard di Liberto
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