29 May 2018
French antique clocks in the Empire style possess the dual function of being timepieces, but also bronze sculptural works
of art in themselves. It is particularly evident in the models incorporated in these clocks, that they bear characteristics
of fine art. These timepieces were chiefly made for libraries, salons and for boudoirs because of the skill integrated
in these works.
These types of French clocks were manufactured following the fashionable Empire Style, a phase within Neoclassicism in the
decorative arts, based on the classical antiquity art from both the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. This style was a
reaction to the excesses of the Rococo period and incorporated classical designs, allegories and motifs. These timekeepers
were embellished with fine bronze figures of art, high ideals allegories, gods, goddesses, classical literary heroes
and other allegorical or mythological compositions. Early 19th century European society would have been very familiar
with the myths referenced in the clocks. Sometimes historical personages such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and
Napoleon Bonaparte, and noted philosophers and classical authors, were also featured as the main theme. Consequently,
they are also known as figural or sculptural clocks.
The use of gilded bronze to make luxury goods reached its peak at the beginning of the 19th century in France. The popularity
of this material can be ascribed to the technical qualities inherent in bronze, and the fact that it is an easy material
to mould. For this reason, it became the favourite material for clock cases, candelabra and furniture ornaments. Owing
to the skill of bronze casters and chasers, these objects were not merely timekeepers, but became objets d'art in themselves.
In Empire style timepieces, clock cases were predominantly cast in bronze and ormolu was also used largely in France
for the decoration of clocks and was always gilded. Unlike French 18th century clocks which were predominantly signed,
the authorship of most Empire clocks remains a mystery, creating difficulties in attributing a particular work to a certain
bronze sculptor. This blog post will explore French Empire bronze clocks, which will include mantel clocks, sculptural
clocks and some more architectural clocks.
Notwithstanding, there were a myriad of differing case shapes, the most popular were clocks retaining a rectangular base
bolstered by four (or more) legs of different forms and patterns. The front of the base was usually decorated with either
garlands, acanthus tendrils, laurel wreaths, scrolls, flowers and other classical decorative motifs, or depicting mythological
and allegoric scenes. On top of the base was the plinth that accommodated the clock dial. Our example below is quintessential
of French clocks in the Empire style, having a stepped oblong plinth base that is decorated on the front with an oak-leaf
and acorn garland. The clock is mounted with a well-cast bronze classical lady, which is also highly typical of clocks
in this manner.
Mantel clocks or shelf clocks are relatively small house clocks customarily placed on the shelf, or mantel, above a fireplace.
This form of clock was first developed in France in the 1750s and can be distinguished from earlier chamber clocks of
similar size due to the absence of carrying handles. These clocks are often highly ornate, decorative works and are principally
constructed from any combination of ormolu, bronze, porcelain, and wood.
The 1802 publication of Dominique Denon's “Voyages Dans la Basse et Haute Egypte”, which became the classic work on the forms
of Egyptian art, did much to stimulate early 19th century European interest and consequently society witnessed the transposition
of Egyptian motifs onto decorative objects and furniture. This is reflected in our example of a French bronze and ormolu
clock circa 1820 in the Egyptian style. Its Egyptian stylistic qualities are extensive, evident in its bronze obelisk
tower decorated with hieroglyphics, which is mounted with a recessed bull’s head and also incorporates a stylised Egyptian
figure with flowers. Furthermore, our example includes a sphinx. The true Egyptian sphinx was male and without wings.
Whereas the more popular characterisation of the sphinx in the Empire manner was the Greek interpretation, the winged
monster of Thebes, with a woman's head and breast and a lion's body, resembled in our clock's sphinx. The French Empire
style is recognised as encompassing myths into its design, which is echoed through the mythological sphinx. This spectacular
clock truly epitomises the distinctive French Empire style and indeed all the Empire clocks in our collection demonstrate
the design movement's subtlety and realism, particularly in its handling of human figures.