Upstairs in the ballroom of Hammond-Harwood House, there is an intriguing small clock (fig 1) that glistens on top of a Baltimore side table. To understand this piece, and why it is here, we need to go back to Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799, and the death of George Washington (fig 2).
As a period of grief and mourning passed through the United States, the market for Washington memorabilia increased, and items such as commemorative china, jewelry, buttons and wall hangings were produced.
One response to this demand was from Parisian artisan Jean-Baptiste Dubuc. Dubuc was a pendulier, an artisan who cast the various components on bronze, and then assembled them to make decorative mantle clocks. This type of clock was already popular in France. It consisted of a base, a plinth to house the clock face and mechanism, a small statue, usually drawn from ancient history or mythology, and other allegorical and decorative components, all made of bronze.
Dubuc thought that there would be a market in the young United States for a decorative clock honoring George Washington. Customers would likely be affluent Americans, like the Loockermans who lived at the Hammond-Harwood House in the early 19th century (although we have no evidence that they ever owned such a clock).
He would make them both from existing components, such as the base, and some made exclusively for the Washington clock. Dubuc needed to create a statuette to affix to the base. He used the image from the painting “Washington Before the Battle of Trenton” by John Trumball (fig 3). An engraving of this painting had been widely circulated in both the United States and in Europe, and would be widely recognized. The top of the plinth was adorned by an eagle, and the motto “E Pluribus Unm”. The front bore an inscription from Washington’s funeral oration by Major-General Henry Lee, which was also widely known at the time: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” (although it was slightly misquoted in early versions of the clock, including the one at Hammond-Harwood House).
These bronze components were assembled, and then through a process called “ormolu,” gilded with a thin layer of gold. The ormulu process was a predecessor to electroplating. The bronze castings were dipped in a molten bath of gold and mercury. Not surprisingly, the use of mercury made this a dangerous process. The hazards were realized even in the 18th century, and the workers often wore primitive personal protective masks. Even so, ormolu workers rarely lived past 40 years old, sadly meaning these beautiful objects came at a price. The clock mechanisms were being mass-produced by Parisian clock makers. The clock faces, however, typically bore the name of the pendulier rather than the clockmaker.
These clocks were produced over the years with many variants, such as size of the base, style of the eagle or substitution of the eagle with the masonic image of the pyramid with the all-seeing eye, and the addition of a pictorial frieze to the larger base.
This clock is believed to be one of the earliest batches and came from a group of 30 brought to Annapolis in 1805, and sold by cabinet maker John Shaw from his shop (fig 4) in Annapolis. Shaw in addition to making furniture also imported a goods from Europe to sell in Annapolis. Other clocks were brought here by the Marquis de Lafayette during his 1824 tour of the United States.
Washington memorial clocks are now highly prized by museums and collectors. Versions of these clocks are in the White House, the State Department, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winterthur, Yale University, Homewood House in Baltimore, and here at the Hammond-Harwood House, where it rests on that table in the ballroom (fig 5).
The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve, for public education and enjoyment, the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts.