Amongst the strong selection of items in our Fine Clocks, Barometers and Scientific Instruments scheduled for 6 September, is Lot 188, a rather interesting small Charles II ebony table or bracket clock by a little-known maker which proved to be more interesting than initially thought. Here, Leighton Gillibrand gives us some insight into this intriguing piece.
A Knibb in all but Name
As a specialist in clocks, barometers and scientific instruments, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my role is the element of discovery. The buzz experienced when stumbling across something rather special, languishing neglected in a quiet corner is what every auctioneer lives for, however the joy of discovery can come about through examination and research with the object sometimes revealing something rather surprising about itself.
Recently, I had the pleasure of being in receipt of a small table or bracket clock which, even at a glance, raised my pulse as I could see it was something a little special. Consigned via a fine art adviser, along with a small group of other items, the clock is a ‘family piece’ which has not been touched for many years (perhaps generations!).
A Charles II ebony table or bracket clock | Est. £6,000-8,000 (+ fees)
On examination, with a knowledgeable eye, first impressions were not hugely encouraging as the case of the clock had clearly received a slight ‘makeover’. The mouldings between the caddy and the main part of the case were fairly obvious replacements; the top handle and mounts applied to both the superstructure and front door were also of incorrect pattern for a 17th century clock. Indeed the style mounts and the profiles of the replaced mouldings suggested that they were ‘Victorian’ additions dating to around 1890. On opening the front door however, the clock started to reveal its quality and originality, as the brass dial could be fully appreciated. Exhibiting very fine matting to the centre, original sculpted steel hands, well-proportioned chapter ring and finely worked cherub mask spandrels, the eyes were naturally drawn to the beautifully inscribed signature Henry Merriman, Londini to the lower edge of the plate. Henry Merriman is not a familiar name, indeed I cannot recall coming across another clock by him.
Turning the clock around the glimpses of the movement could be seen through the side window revealing a high-quality twin fusee mechanism with plates united by distinctive baluster-shaped pillars. To those of us fortunate enough to have handled clocks by the most eminent of English makers, the profile of these pillars were unmistakable as they were identical to those used by Joseph Knibb. Looking closer into the movement it became obvious that the entire mechanism was indistinguishable from the work of Knibb. Features such as the shape/form of the latches securing the pillars and dial plate are pure Knibb, as are the deeply domed collets applied to the fine slender wheels and the use of brass for the various hammer stops, and springs each terminating with beautiful scroll-shaped sculpted feet. The surprise didn’t end there as it became clear that the mechanism was not only identical to the work of Joseph Knibb but it also had refinements only seen on his fully developed ‘phase III’ movements; most notably the positioning of both the strike-work racks (for governing the amount of times the hammer sounds on the bell during striking) to the inside of the rear backplate near the escapement.
Having taken all of this in, the movement could then be examined from the rear. The backplate is exquisitely engraved with scrolling tulip-bud inhabited foliage, around another beautifully inscribed signature Henry Merriman, Londini. The design of the engraving can be very closely compared in both its layout and design detail to that of a double-six striking clock by Joseph Knibb illustrated in Ronal Lee’s celebrated monograph The Knibb Family, Clockmakers on page 128 (Plate 137). As a specialist used to examining early table/bracket clocks, particular attention is always given to the escapement area. This is because most examples have had the original verge escapement replaced by a later design of anchor escapement which was considered an improvement during the 19th century. Fortunately the present movement survives unaltered and still retains its unusual distinctive ‘Knibb’ type single footed back cock (pendulum pivot bracket). Finding a clock of this type and age with an unaltered escapement is a nice surprise, although is probably partly due to the layout of the movement, making conversion to anchor escapement difficult (due to the positioning of the striking racks against the backplate).
As often the case with clocks of this period, the movement is fitted with a pull-quarter repeat mechanism which allows time to be established at night by pulling a cord which, in turn, activates a mechanism to sound the last hour and quarter on two or more bells. The present clock is no exception however on closer examination it could be seen that the clock was originally fitted with a ‘push-bar’ system of operation rather than a cord. Two vertical slots in the sides of the case (near the front lower corners) indicate where a steel bar, no doubt fitted with hinged thumb-piece at each end, would have passed through the case to act as a plunger for operating the repeat work. Although the mechanism has seen some slight alteration to now facilitate operation by pulling on a cord, evidence of the original configuration can clearly be seen and would be relatively straightforward to reinstate. Push-bar repeat systems are very rare and almost exclusive to the Knibb family.
Now that we’ve established that the present clock is essentially a fully developed Knibb ‘phase III’ type table clock incorporating push-bar repeat and made in around 1685-90, the question begs, why is it signed for Henry Merriman and who was he?
Henry Merriman is recorded by Brian Loomes as born around 1655 and apprenticed to Richard Bowen in January 1667. He gained his ‘freedom’ of the Clockmaker’s Company in 1674/5 but continued working with Bowen until the following year. He had a long career taking in no less than eleven apprentices from 1676 until 1703. Other than being a close contemporary of Joseph Knibb (who moved from Oxford and started working in London in 1671) Merriman would appear not to have any obvious connection with the Knibb workshops. Despite a long career, Loomes notes very little work by him, stating a few watches are known. The reason for his low output most likely lies in the fact that he was noted as being a ‘servant’ in 1695 which indicates that he was working as a Journeyman for another or other makers. As an experienced Journeyman, Merriman may well have run his own workshop and taken-in apprentices, however the business would have focussed on producing work for other makers rather than for retail by himself. Whether he would have produced fully finished movements (complete except for a signature) or would have undertaken only part of the clockmaking process is not known, indeed the level of work he was contracted to undertake would be known to only Merriman and his employer.
Generally, very little is understood regarding the nature of the arrangements between Journeymen and their employers, however now and again we get glimpses of the depth of interaction between workshops in the form of a fine clock bearing a name of a relatively unknown maker. One such name is Michael Knight who as Tompion’s first apprentice left the ‘household’ but continued to produce work for Tompion. No records of their working arrangement appear to exist but around ten clocks signed by Michael Knight are known, all of which are exceptional examples being essentially indistinguishable from the work of his former Master. We’ll probably never know whether or not Merriman undertook work for Joseph Knibb, however the existence of the present clock may well suggest that he may well have done.
Another possible scenario is that Merriman may have ‘bought-in’ the clock from Knibb which, during the finishing process, was engraved with his name for retail by himself. Other clocks originating from the Knibb workshops but signed by other makers are known, however they tend to carry names of former apprentices or associates. Indeed Ronald Lee notes clocks signed by Samuel Aldworth, Matthais Unite and Patrick Vans all of whom were apprenticed to either Joseph or John Knibb; however he also mentions clocks signed by Thomas Taylor and Edward Stanton both of which were clearly made in the Knibb workshops but signed by makers with no obvious connection.
In today’s market, buyers are very keen to acquire clocks by the ‘masters’ hence value is often very much all in the name. Indeed if the present clock was signed by Joseph Knibb then an auction value somewhere in the region of £40,000 would not be unrealistic. The Merriman clock therefore presents as a potentially relatively affordable way of acquiring an example equally as good (and arguably more interesting) as a ‘Knibb’, but for a much more attractive price.
The appeal of the Merriman clock further lies in its ‘freshness’ to the market having been consigned by a descendant of the ancient aristocratic Baltic Wrangel family of Sweden whose roots stretch back to well before the clock was made. From this it may be appropriate to speculate that it could well have been supplied to a member of the family when new; this possibility becomes more certain when the power and influence of various members of the family such as Carl Gustave Wrangel (1613-76) is considered. The Swedish roots of the clock may also account for the slightly idiosyncratic design of the later mounts to the case, which, being cast as fruiting vine sprigs, suggest continental origins. The fact that the cosmetic alterations to the case haven’t been reversed, is (rather ironically) testament to the clock’s long-term family provenance. Indeed the fine state of preservation of the movement is indicative of the clock perhaps residing quietly in the corner of a Swedish slott for most of its life.
The Swedish provenance of the present clock presents another opportunity for further research as it may well reflect the extent and breadth of the healthy export trade enjoyed by London clockmakers during the last quarter of the 17th century. Furthermore the reason why the clock is signed by Merriman (rather than by Joseph Knibb) may well lie in that it was made for an overseas client; indeed research into the present clock’s origins can only serve to add to our knowledge of the remarkable breadth and complex nuances of the London clockmaking trade at that time.
In addition to the interesting provenance, the unrestored condition of the Merriman clock allows its story to be told through examination of the object itself and serves to provide the potential buyer with firm reassurance of the clock’s honesty. The next owner will then have the opportunity to carefully bring the case back to its original state thus allowing the purity of a Knibb ‘phase III’ design to be fully appreciated (without having to break the bank in the process!)
As an enthusiast I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to handle and investigate such an interesting early clock, in wonderful honest condition, and hope that it finds a good home with a like-minded enthusiast who will cherish it for the rather wonderful object that it is.
Tuesday 6 September | 10.30am BST
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Browse the auction
Sign up to email alerts
Viewing in Newbury:
- Friday 2 September: 10am-4pm
- Sunday 4 September: 10am-2pm
- Monday 5 September: 10am-5pm
- Day of sale: from 8.30am