Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Works by Joseph Bourghelle (Clockmaker, French, active Philadelphia ca. 1773-1775 and New York ca. 1786-1787), engraved by James Poupard (French, Martinician, working in Philadelphia 1772-1807)
ca. 1775-1780
United States: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
North American
wood; mahogany; southern yellow pine; yellow-poplar; eastern white pine; Atlantic white cedar
Overall: 111 1/8 in x 24 1/8 in x 10 7/8 in; 282.2575 cm x 61.2775 cm x 27.6225 cm
Originally made for Ludwig Prahl (d. 1809; active 1776-1809) of Philadelphia; purchased in Boston by the Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, dealer Edward LaFond about 1985; to F.J. Carey III, a Philadelphia dealer; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
In addition to calendar, celestial, and zodiacal calibrations in the four spandrels and arched top of the dial, "Bourghelle Philadelphia" engraved at the bottom of the chapter ring; "I Poupard Sculpt." engraved on the moon dial; and "Ludwig Prahl" engraved on a plate above the center of the dial
Credit Line
Funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Floyd D. Gottwald, Jr.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

The original owner of the clock, Ludwig (or Lewis) Prahl, is listed variously in Philadelphia directories as a whitesmith, armorer, cutler, and gunsmith, trades that often required the services of an engraver and may have introduced Prahl to Poupard. Prahl served in the Continental Army under General Anthony Wayne and demonstrated even greater valor by supplying hundreds of muskets, pikes, spontoons, swords, and bayonets to Wayne’s forces on extended credit. Perhaps the general was inspired by his own Rittenhouse clock to present Prahl with a similar token of his gratitude, or else Prahl was able to afford such a clock after settling his lucrative weapons contracts.1For Wayne’s tall clock, see Nutting 1928, no. 3278. For examples of Prahl’s work, see Neumann, no. 77, and Peterson 1954, 98–99, 219–20. In any case, there is no further evidence of Prahl’s interest in the art of horology.

Unfortunately, little is known of the craftsmen responsible for this example or about the circumstances of its production. The craftsmen’s obscurity, the clock’s unprecedented sophistication, and the extent of subsequent alterations to the movement present more questions than answers about this highly ambitious timepiece.2The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jack L. Lindsey, Associate Curator in charge of American Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose extensive research notes on this clock form the basis of these remarks. (See Curatorial Files, Diplomatic. Reception Rooms.) (The eight-day movement has been extensively restored: the movement has been partially rebuilt. the escapement converted, and a central seconds hand introduced.) In size and complexity, only the celebrated tall clock and planetarium by David Rittenhouse at Drexel University rivals this example, and even Rittenhouse’s masterpiece performs fewer mechanical functions.3See Nutting 1928, 2: 3277. See also Philadelphia: Three Centuries, no. 132.

In addition to sidereal, solar, and zodiacal time, this clock was evidently intended to regulate eight additional dials with the dates of Pennsylvania state and local court sessions. (Why Prahl might have wanted to track these sessions is unknown.) These subsidiary dials, however, were never fitted with the levers necessary to run them, just as the main dials for the date, month, and week were later compromised by alterations to the movement, including a conversion of the escapement.4The author is indebted to Edward F. LaFond, Jr. for his technical notes. See also the 1985 correspondence with Simon Bull of Bobinet, London, in the Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

Further confusion arises from the awkward relationship of the dials to the underlying engraving. The court session dials, for example, extend beyond the edge of the base plate. The oversized chapter ring covers portions of the surrounding ornament, and the engraved spandrel ornaments are neither cast nor applied in the usual manner for clocks of this date. Finally, the presence of so many unused and misplaced drill holes on the dial is inconsistent with the necessarily close collaboration between clockmaker and engraver to produce a clock of this complexity.

In all of Philadelphia’s legal, commercial, financial, military, and religious records, Joseph Bourghelle’s name appears only once, when he disembarked from the Pennsylvania Packet bound from London in 1773. Considering the wide renown of David Rittenhouse, one assumes that Philadelphia would have eagerly embraced Bourghelle, a foreign-born mechanical genius of surpassing ability, and yet Bourghelle’s name is curiously absent from the documents of Philadelphia’s learned societies. He is next recorded in New York City directories for 1786, but neither his name nor his widow’s appears thereafter in either city.

James Poupard, the engraver of the dial, announced his arrival from London in 1772 and offered his services as an engraver, goldsmith, and jeweler. In addition to illustrations in four small pamphlets, Poupard engraved the seal of the French Benevolent Society, a fraternal order through which he might have met Bourghelle.5See The Pennsylvania Gazette, no. 2294 (December 9, 1772). Copies of the pamphlets are in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the seal remains in the collection of the French Benevolent Society, Philadelphia.

The style of the mahogany case is reminiscent of Benjamin Randolph’s magnificent case of 1774 for the Rittenhouse clock at Drexel University. Several aspects of its construction suggest, however, that the case was made by a cabinetmaker working outside of Philadelphia, perhaps in Lancaster County. For example, the crudeness of the laminated trelliswork in the pediment, the half-thickness of the fretwork under the dentil molding, and the applied carving in the hood reveal the hand of a talented craftsman but one unaccustomed to making furniture in this style.6Alan Miller first suggested this attribution, based on his knowledge of another documented clock from Lancaster County in a private collection. The plinths, finials, cartouche, and rosettes are new. The waist door hinges and keyhole escutcheon have been replaced.7Winterthur kindly allowed a waist door brass on a related example in its collection (Acc. No. 57.247) to be copied.

Thomas S. Michie

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.