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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 609-614

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Exhibition Review

The Art of the Timekeeper:
Masterpieces from the Winthrop Edey Bequest


The Art of the Timekeeper: Masterpieces from the Winthrop Edey Bequest. The Frick Collection, New York City (14 November 2001-24 February 2002).
William J.H. Andrewes, The Art of the Timekeeper: Masterpieces from the Winthrop Edey Bequest (New York: The Frick Collection, 2001).

This intriguing exhibition of twenty-one clocks and watches, held at the Frick Collection last winter, represents a new area of growth in the decorative arts for the museum, whose most celebrated holdings are its paintings and sculptures. All acquired by collector and scholar Winthrop Kellogg Edey and bequeathed to the Frick Collection in 1999, the timepieces on display were selected from his larger gift of clocks, watches, and books on the art of timekeeping. They ranged in date from the early sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries best represented. Displayed in two rooms—one for the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century clocks and watches and another for the pendulum-regulated clocks of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the varied timepieces offered the student of material culture an insight into the fusion of aesthetics, philosophy, and technology that governed early modern attitudes toward the measurement of time. The curator of the exhibition was William J. H. Andrewes, formerly the David P. Wheatland Curator at Harvard University and author of The Quest for Longitude (1996), who also wrote a small, fine catalogue from which the exhibition's textual panels were drawn. In his introduction to the exhibition Andrewes emphasized the equal importance of timepieces to the history of the decorative arts and to the history of technology, a claim amply borne out by the works themselves, which appeared at once as functional objects of increasing efficiency and as richly ornamental meditations on the notion of time. As one might expect, the decorative, sculptural capacities of the timepieces were most evident in the room devoted to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; in the room containing the later clocks, by contrast, the mechanisms themselves became a major visual concern, as if the intricate workings of gears and escapements could serve as ornament for Enlightenment eyes.

The earlier timepieces, shown in the first room in the exhibition, were all powered by a coiled spring mechanism, first introduced in Europe in the late fourteenth century and providing an advantage over weight-driven mechanisms in allowing the clock to be made small and portable. As if to counteract any doubts that portability might have raised as to the reliability of the mechanism, many of the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century clocks employed architectural structures such as correctly ordered classical columns, pediments, domes, and finials, which implied durability and indeed would continue to dominate the cases for the pendulum-based clocks displayed in the other room. The integration of mechanics and architectural design in these early, metal-cased timepieces was made clear by the fact that, with the exception of the enameled watches, one master clockmaker was responsible both for each piece's clockwork and for its elegant housing. The earliest work on display, a hexagonal, domed table clock made in France in about 1532, was in fact equally noteworthy for its technological proficiency—as one of the earliest known spring-powered clocks—and for the [End Page 609] architectural fantasy of its gold-filigree case, styled to resembled a miniature clock tower. Cleverly concealed beneath the outer drum and dome, the bell of the clock not only struck the hour but also served as a timed alarm. The dome's open filigree allowed a glimpse both of the bell and of the inner gears and fusee, a cone-shaped spindle used to equalize the force of the coiled spring. A curious visitor could also observe the inner mechanism through a hinged door in the case on one side. On close inspection, even this functional core...


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