Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Works by William Claggett (British, American, 1696-1749), case by Townsend-Goddard School (Cabinetmakers, 18th and 19th century)
ca. 1745-1750
United States: Rhode Island: Newport
North American
wood; mahogany; yellow-poplar; eastern white pine; black walnut
Overall: 97 1/4 in x 21 3/16 in x 10 3/4 in; 247.015 cm x 53.81625 cm x 27.305 cm
Acquired in 1956 by the donor from Mrs. Charles L. Lawrence of New York, who inherited it from her grandfather, Major General John Adams Dix (1798-1879), who presumably purchased it in the third quarter of the 19th century.
On the arc of the dial, "William Claggett Newport"
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. C. Thomas Clagett, Jr.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

This magnificent William Claggett clock is one of four Newport tall-case clocks that feature this unusual and commanding double cornice and extraordinary brass dial.1The other three clocks are at Winterthur, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the collection of Eric M. Wunsch of New York City. For their help on these related examples, sincere thanks go to Robert F. Trent, Morrison H. Heckscher, Eric M. Wunsch, Richard L. Champlin, Robert Emlen, Elliot Caldwell, and Linda Eppich. Although the related cases suggest an origin in the same cabinet shop, two of the movements are signed by Claggett and two by his apprentice and son-in-law, James Wady.2Heckscher 1985, 294–95. Born in Wales, Claggett worked in Boston between about 1708 and 1716, before moving to Newport. He is known to have made at least three types of dials, uniting them with various styles of cases, including several Boston-made japanned cases.3Ibid., 294–95. Claggett died in 1749 and was succeeded in his business by Wady; these four clocks, then, represent the height of development and refinement by a master clockmaker and cabinetmaker just prior to the mid-eighteenth century.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this clock is the elaborately engraved brass fret applied not only to the face of the arch and broken-scroll pediment but also to the facing board that surrounds the dial inside the door. Cut from cast sheet brass and probably originally gilt, this was most certainly imported by either the maker of the case or Claggett. This clock is the only one of the four that has a brass fret; the others are wood or heavy paper. Presumably, the brass fret is original, although it might have been added later in the eighteenth century.4The author is grateful to Donald L. Fennimore of Winterthur for his review of the brass fret and his reference to an English hardware catalogue of ca. 1783–89 at Winterthur citing “pierced brass frets for clock bonnets” for sale. It was removed during restoration (probably early in this century), and the original backing material was replaced by a thick mahogany veneer over ash or oak veneer.5Originally, two long arched voids were cut into the lower portion of the pediment, allowing the sound of the bell to penetrate through the paper and fret. For the same reason, the other three clocks are pierced with a series of holes approximately three quarters of an inch in diameter. It might be assumed that originally the fret was backed with a wool baize—type woven fabric. During restoration, however, a large fragment of hand-laid paper painted in a tortoiseshell design was found inside the face of the bonnet under an original glue block. A reproduction of this paper has been placed behind the fret to suggest what may have been the original appearance.6Many conservators worked on various aspects of the clock’s treatment, including Robert Mussey, David Mitchell, Georgett Rudes, Edward LaFond, Marylou Davis, Gene Farrell, and Henry Lie. The original finial did not survive; a reproduction of an eighteenth-century finial original to the Wady clock in the Wunsch collection has been used to suggest an original treatment.

Although both Wady cases have diminutive ogee-bracket feet, this clock and its Claggett companion have deep molded bases today and may never have had feet. The shells on the two Wady clocks compare favorably to this one, but the shell on the other Claggett clock is less flowing and not as well developed. Comparison of the mahogany panels on the front of the base of the two Claggett clocks, however, reveals that they were both cut from the same board and hence probably were made at the same time in the same shop. 

Wendy A. Cooper

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.