Tall Case Clock

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  • Artist/Maker: John Jeffray
  • Glasgow, Scotland
  • 1760-1770
  • Mahogany and deal case; brass, iron, and steel movement.
  • Gift of Mary Cary Nicholas Phelps (Mrs. Pelton Phelps), Jaquelin Ambler Nicholas Harvey (Mrs. Aubrey E. Harvey), Edley Craighill Nicholas Stone (Mrs. Richard F. Stone), Norvell Templeman Nicholas Carrington (Mrs. William A. Carrington), and Harrison Trent Nicholas, Jr., in memory of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Trent Nicholas.
  • 1965-102,A_B

This British tall clock was brought to Williamsburg in 1772 by Lord Dunmore (1732-1809), the last royal governor of the colony. Dunmore's brief, turbulent tenure in Virginia ended in 1775 when he fled the Governor's Palace under cover of night. In his haste, Dunmore left behind most of his possessions, which were sold at public auction by the new Commonwealth of Virginia the next year. This clock has a reliable history of purchase at that sale. According to family tradition, the clock was acquired by planter John Ambler of Jamestown, in whose family it remained until it his descendants presented it to CWF in 1965. Lending credence to the clock's tradition of ownership by Lord Dunmore, a Scot, is its production by clockmaker John Jeffray, who worked in Glasgow, Scotland, from about 1749 through the 1760s and possibly later.

According to Smithsonian horologist David Todd, Jeffray's eight-day, hour-strike movement reveals his high level of skill. This is evident not only in the quality of the mechanical elements but in decorative components such as the cast-brass spandrels, which are of the finest grade. The movement is secured to the seat board with finely wrought, square-headed bolts threaded into the lower pillars. The faceted opening around the seconds dial, a detail commonly found on mid-eighteenth-century clocks from Scotland but rarely seen elsewhere, is indicative of Jeffray's Scottish background. One novel aspect of Jeffray's work is the attachment of the seat board to the top edges of the case sides with distinctive wrought-iron mounts.

The unknown maker of the mahogany case was equally skilled, as the quality of the veneered tympanum and base panel attest. Yet the case also displays structural shortcuts. The front and rear edges of the trunk sides are rabbeted to receive the door stiles and back board, which are simply nailed in place. This exposed nail joinery, which could have been easily avoided by nailing through the back boards at the rear and by using interior glue blocks at the front, is an expedient and inexpensive approach. The same is true of the side panels on the base. Instead of being made of solid or veneered boards, each is composed of a series of thin mahogany boards, possibly shop scraps, that were glued up and nailed in place in order to reduce the price of the clock. It is difficult to understand why a man of Dunmore's wealth and standing would have made such a choice. Perhaps the clock was intended for use in a secondary space such as a servants' hall.

Another curious feature is the small wooden plate atop the hood. Secured with wire wrapped around two hand-filed screws, this panel looks like an access door to the movement, but there is another opening below. The plate, apparently installed before the case was finished, is penetrated at each corner by small wrought sprigs that project above the surface. Todd suggests that this opening may have provided access for a bell wire that was attached to the hammer arbor of the movement at one end and a remote hammer and bell or house bell at the other to make the sounding hours audible throughout the house. This would have been particularly desirable in a residence as large as the Palace.

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