It wasn’t my intent to start a discussion of the clock cases documented and attributed to John Head’s shop until later this year, but to be topical I must mention this 8-day clock by Peter Stretch (1670-1746) in a black cherry case attributed to Head to be sold as lot 6054 of the E. Newbold and Margaret duPont Smith collection at Sotheby’s on January 21.
The substantial pre-sale estimate is based on several factors including the sale of a clock by Peter Stretch in a carved mahogany clock case in 2006 for $1,688,000, now in the collection of Winterthur Museum. In addition, the dial of this clock is arguably the loveliest made by the Stretch’s, versions of it appearing on clocks signed by both Peter and William Stretch, that were most likely made throughout the 1730s. There is herringbone engraving along the edges of the dial plate, the complication in the arch shows both the phases of the moon and the times of high and low tide in Philadelphia, (which is, of course, “tied” to the moon’s apparent motion) and a specially designed pierced and engraved name boss has the makers name and city surrounded by foliate scrolls, a pair of birds in flight (Time flies!), and the motto of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, the City of London livery company established by Royal Charter granted by King Charles I in 1631, “Tempus Rerum Imperator”, or Time is the ruler of (all) things. That the case can be attributed to a specific maker adds to its cachet.
The catalogue description references Jay R. Stiefel’s “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner” citing the two cherry clock cases Head debited to Peter Stretch. (Head charged £5.0.0 for arched cases of woods other than walnut, including cedar, cherry, maple and mahogany. The two cherry clock cases were debited to Stretch in 1732 and 1737.) The catalogue doesn’t mention cherry clock cases Head supplied to Edmund Woolley in 1723 and John Morris in 1736, though they are featured in Stiefel’s article. While the Smith/Sotheby’s case is almost certainly too late to be the one Woolley purchased in 1723, Morris may have purchased a Peter Stretch movement for his cherry clock case. In Head’s accounts, there are several other charges of £5.0.0 for clock cases with no wood designation, several of these may have been made of cherry. Adding up the cherry clock cases in Head’s accounts and the other possible cherry clock cases debited at £5.0.0 but with no wood designation, Head’s output of cherry clock cases would total perhaps a half-a-dozen to a dozen at most. We currently attribute no other extant cherry clock cases to the shop of John Head, indeed, no other furniture forms made of cherry have been attributed to Head. The use of “Rare” in the catalogue description is fitting.
With John Head debiting his last cherry clock case in 1737, his ending his furniture production in 1744, and Peter Stretch’s demise in 1746 you wonder why the auction house dates the clock to “circa 1750”. Nit picking? Perhaps, but even auction houses don’t regularly date objects after the death date of the maker. “Circa 1735” would more accurately reflect the style of the dial and the evidence of Head’s accounts.
I worked in the shop that restored this case in the early 1980s. It is in very intact condition as these cases go though perhaps not quite as good as the catalogue description leads on. I’m not exactly sure why we gilded the hood column capitals and bases and picked out some of the mouldings with japanning. It’s not something I would do today. Perhaps the fact that the case has a brass oculus surround in the waist door prompted the gilding. Of the dozens of clock cases we now attribute to the John Head shop, if a brass oculus is present, the hood columns employ cast-brass mounts at their capitals and bases. When the oculus surround is wood, the columns are turned entirely of wood. This case is an anomaly in regard to the materials of the surround and column capitals and bases.
Stiefel writes of Head’s phonetic spelling in his supplementary article, “The Head Account Book as Artifact.” What today we know as black cherry (Prunus seotina), Head wrote variously as “Charetre”, Chare Tree”, Chari Tree”, and “Chary Treewood.” Making entries in his ledger in the last hours of daylight of a long summer’s day, or by candlelight in winter, Head spelled it as he spoke it.