Grandfather clock – Timeless elegance

The longcase clock first appeared in the second half of the 17th century and hasn’t changed much since then.

It is widely known as the “grandfather clock”, not because it is commonly found in a house of an elderly person, but due to a song that dates from 1876.

During a visit to England, American songwriter Henry Clay Work noticed a large clock in the lobby of the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. Work showed particular interest in the clock because, even though it was broken, it was a main feature of the lobby.

On asking to hear the story behind it, he was told that the clock had belonged to the previous owners of the inn, two brothers by the name of Jenkins.

Grandfather clock; Clock dates back to 1700 and the case to late 19th – early 20th century. AKS.9955. CC BY-SA 4.0

The clock had always kept perfect time up until one of them passed away, when, so the tale goes, the clock began running slow.

It couldn’t be repaired and finally gave up the ghost completely — at exactly the same moment that the second brother died.

Whether true or not, Work liked the story and decided to write a song about it. The song called “My Grandfather’s Clock” was a huge success, selling over a million copies in sheet music.

The term longcase clock was quickly forgotten by the public in favor of the new nickname.

Grandfather clock. wplynn. CC BY-ND 2.0

To this day a popular children’s song, it has been covered by many artists including Johnny Cash and The Shadows. The song even inspired an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The grandfather clock was introduced in England, somewhere around 1680, by a British clockmaker named William Clement. Its creation was possible thanks to Christian Huygens, the Dutch scientist who invented the practical pendulum clock in 1657.

Most of a longcase clock’s height is used to hold the long pendulum and weights. Quadell. CC BY-SA 3.0

Clement’s tall clock had a Classical architectural appearance with noticeable Dutch influence. Its case was made of oak and was designed to hold the long and heavy pendulum.

The earliest clocks were six feet high and simple in design, until 1675 when Dutch marquetry decoration became more trendy. In this period, the Seaweed and Arabesque forms of inlay developed.

The most exclusive pieces were made of olive-wood and walnut, however oak continued to be used as the main construction material by provincial clockmakers. Sometimes pine was used instead, to manufacture less expensive versions.

Clock face circa 1730 Timothy Mason (clockmaker) of Gainsborough. Sirswindon. CC BY-SA 4.0

By 1725 some clocks were even eight feet high. Marquetry had become old-fashioned and was replaced by the lacquer or ‘Japanned’ finish.

As furniture fashions changed, so did the decoration and materials used for constructing clock cases.

For a long period, the grandfather clock was considered a status symbol and it followed the prevalent furniture styles, such as Rococo, Neoclassical, Regency and Victorian, as well as the type of lacquer work popular at the time.

Bornholm clock made by Edvart Sonne, from Rønne, Bornholm in the late 1700s. Mogens Engelund. CC BY-SA 3.0

Around 1685 the first longcase clocks were brought to America by European immigrants, and roughly ten years later their production there began.

Around 1750, mahogany became the leading material for constructing a grandfather clock since its popularity rose rapidly.

Grandfather clock. Thomas Quine. CC BY 2.0

Up until 1772, when Birmingham clockmaker Osborn & Wilson introduced a white dial, the dials were made of brass. The engraved numerals could be either Arabic or Roman and were filled with black wax.

The early clocks were simple, decorated only with motifs inspired by nature such as birds or strawberries, while later on small painted scenes were depicted in the corners and arch.

Grandfather clock. Thomas Quine.CC BY 2.0

At that time, the painted dial grandfather clock was the most popular and modern type one could possess. In the 19th century, oak and mahogany were mostly used for producing a grandfather clock.

Despite the good quality of the craftsmanship and the Neo-Celtic motifs on the cases, the late Victorian period is often considered to have created some of the most unpleasant-looking grandfather clocks of all time.

Vintage French Grandfather Clock. Jean L. CC BY 2.0

The melody that many grandfather clocks use for their chimes was written in 1793 for the clock of Great St. Mary’s, the Church of England University Church in Cambridge.

The melody became popular after it was adopted for the bell in the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster in London, known as Big Ben.

Longcase clock from about 1750 in the District Museum in Tarnów in Poland

In the beginning of the 20th century, mass-production of smaller and inexpensive clocks caused the grandfather clock to fall out of favor.

Nowadays, longcase clocks are still produced in their original “grandfather” form as well as smaller versions. These are known as the “grandmother clock”, which stands six-feet-tall, and the five-foot-high “granddaughter clock”.

Gorgeous Art Nouveau furniture

Although they are not a common element of a modern living-room, magnificent antique grandfather clocks are still admired in many museums.