Like several million other collectors, we watched the Antiques Roadshow last Sunday, amazed the value of the wonderful, early but sadly anonymous longcase clock that was judged to be worth £30,000 plus.
That was enough to cause us to gasp in wonder, but to hear that the owner omitted to wind the striking chain so that the thing was silent on the hour and half hour left us speechless.
What, pray, is the point of having such a beautiful timepiece in your home if you don’t enjoy listening to it mark the passage of the hours?
Clocks have always been my passion. That steady tick-tock of a longcase clock in perfect beat, has such a restful, relaxing, almost hypnotic effect that it’s easy to forget about the time wasted listening to it.
When it’s going, a clock comes alive. Its hands move and in addition to telling the time, some indicate the day, the date, the month – even the phases of the moon and the times of high tides.
And they have a “voice”. The perfect harmonics given out by the strike of hammer hitting brass bell or steel gong when a clock strikes is, to my mind at least, sheer bliss.
Of course, not everyone has the spare cash – or space in their home – for a longcase clock. In which case they should consider the beauty illustrated here.
It’s known as a grande sonnerie (literally big ringer) and it has a little sister – the petite sonnerie. Let me explain why.
It’s hard to imagine these days what it must have been like to live without any reliable, or affordable, artificial light at night.
In the days when there were no such things as street lamps or torches, clocks that told when the next full moon would appear were obviously important when a journey or an outside event was being planned.
A clock which had the ability to tell its owner the time in the pitch dark was also extremely useful. The grande and petite sonnerie clock will do just that.
Most chiming clocks do so on the hour and half hour, some only on the hour. Slightly better movements are fitted with a repeat mechanism, controlled by either a string to pull or a button to push, which causes the clock to strike the current hour again, giving its owner an idea of the time to the nearest 60 minutes.
The petite sonnerie movement takes things a step further. Instead of one bell or gong, this movement has two, of different tones, and two hammers to strike them.
They are referred to as “ting-tangs”, a highly onomatopoeic term as that is exactly the sound they make, one bell being slightly lower in tone than the other.
On the quarter hour, the hammers strike the two bells just once. At half past, two ting-tangs of four blows are struck and at three-quarters of the hour, three ting-tangs of six blows. The hour is struck by single blows.
Thus, by causing the clock to repeat, it is possible to tell the time to the nearest quarter of an hour, simply by counting the number of strikes.
If you are within hearing distance of the clock, day or night, you can tell exactly what time it is at each quarter hour.
Problem is, if you missed counting the chimes when the clock struck the hour, then you won’t know which o’clock it’s a quarter or a half, or whatever past.
Which is where the grand sonnerie comes in. This movement follows the same pattern as its little sister, but the hour is struck by single blows at each quarter before the correct number of ting-tangs.
For example, at 3:15, the clock strikes once on the higher bell to indicate the quarter hour, followed by three strikes on the lower bell to indicate the hour.
At 3:30, the clock strikes twice on the higher bell for the half-hour, followed by three chimes on the lower bell for the hour, and so on.
Striving for perfection, however, clockmakers managed to go one better: a clock which sounds out the time to the nearest minute.
This movement is called a minute repeater and strikes in exactly the same way as the grand sonnerie, with the addition of striking the number of minutes past the quarter as well.
This is more easily explained by example. Assume you wake in the middle of the night and want to know the time (3.25am).
You grope on the bedside table for your carriage clock and press the repeater button.
It strikes three blows for 3am, once for quarter past the hour and 10 single blows for 10 minutes past the quarter. Clever, huh?
Chances are, incidentally, that the same clock would wake you on time the next morning since many were fitted with alarm mechanisms.
Carriage clocks, usually complete with leather travelling cases, were the natural progression from the movable bracket clock which were generally too heavy and bulky to carry far.
At about the same time, pocket watches were made to be more accurate and these developed into clock-watches, known as coach clocks, specifically for travellers.
At first, these had wooden cases but London makers in particular produced metal-cased examples of standardised design and size which were the forerunner of the carriage clock.
This appeared in recognisable form in about 1830 and, timeless as they are, they continue to be made today, though sadly often with the ubiquitous quartz movement. It proves, however, that the carriage clock will blend in with any décor, whether it’s antique or modern.
*By the by, a carefully positioned wad of cotton wool, held in place with Sellotape on the bell of a longcase clock, will mute the chime and prevent it from keeping your guests awake through the night!
Clocks for the carriage trade
Carriage clocks were the first truly portable type of clock produced in large numbers. Some features are common to them all: they have a spring-balance escapement, a rectangular brass case with glazed windows at the top and sides through which the movement is visible, and a carrying handle. Heights range from 3 inches to 8½ inches. Carriage clocks were introduced by French clock-maker Abraham-Louis Breguet in about 1796 and the vast majority were made in France, particularly during the height of their fashion from 1850-1914. The limited numbers made in Britain are generally larger and of a better quality than standard French versions, and have chain movements, known as fusee movements, while the French clocks have barrels driven by internal springs.
A French mid-19th Century grand sonnerie carriage clock, decorated with cloisonné enamel and two porcelain panels painted with classical maidens. Being a grand sonnerie, the clock has two white dials: one for indicating the time and the second for setting the alarm. It is estimated at £800 – £1,200, but similar examples have been known to realise £3,000 because they are at the absolute pinnacle of carriage clock decoration and mechanism
Left to right: an early 20th century French miniature carriage clock with alarm dial. It’s worth £200-300; a George V silver cased travelling clock with eight-day French movement, worth £200-300 and an elegant early 20th century clock in lacquered brass case, worth £125-160, indicating its basic function as a timekeeper
Carriage class: left to right, a late 19th century French clock by E. Maurice & Co, Paris. The eight-day movement strikes and repeats on one gong. It’s worth £400-500; an early 20th century French miniature clock, complete with case but no strike, worth £350-400 and a 19th century French clock by Henri Jacot of Paris, which strikes and repeats on a gong. It’s worth £600-800