The longcase clock has been a popular feature in British homes since the late 17th century, becoming more affordable over the decades until no Victorian hallway was complete without one. These attractive antiques were both functional and decorative, serving as status symbols in middle and upper-class homes, often becoming a family heirloom due to their value and admiration. Longcase clocks are just as popular today, especially if they retain original details and unique designs – however, due to their old age and complex mechanics you may find them in a less than ideal condition.
Above: examples of typical longcase clock styles from the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries
Our specialist conservators work together to achieve a sensitive restoration, allowing the antique clock to retain features of its age, whilst safely preserving aspects that may be vulnerable to further deterioration. Our furniture experts work with period-appropriate methods to restore missing or broken wooden pieces including decorative features. The face and inner mechanism can be seen by a trained horologist so that upon return to your home all aspects of the antique will be in good working order and protected for decades to come. This article will cover the history of these fascinating clocks, as well as tips for longcase clock care, maintenance and restoration results that can be achieved.
The value and history of longcase clocks
The first longcase clocks came into existence when a new, smaller mechanism was created in 1658, this escapement allowed the clock to function with a much smaller swinging motion, opposed to the wide swings of previous inventions – instead of 80° to 100° degree swing, it now simply required 4° to 6° using less energy, but producing a far more accurate and compact clock device.
Above: details from Thomas Tompion’s longcase clock with calendar, lunar, and tidal features, dated to 1677–80
Although mechanical clocks can be dated back to 1290, longcase clocks will date no earlier than 1660 and became more predominant commercially from 1680 onwards. On the rare occasion that you come across a 17th century longcase clock, you will see that it only has one hour hand, minutes were added around 1690 as the accuracy of the mechanism improved and allowed for an 8 day movement before winding.
Above: two longcase clock faces and a chiming mechanism from the late 17th century
Keeping the clock mechanism in a case was a logical step to keep out dust, protect from accidents and hide any unsightly mechanics. Clockmakers Robert Hooke, William Clement and Thomas Tompion all take credit for the first of these longcase designs. 17th century clocks may be more narrow and simple in design with bun feet instead of a plinth and a dial that is not more than about 9 inches across. You may see a low plinth base or bracketed feet on later 17th century designs, as well as the introduction of a calendar circle. Longcase clocks from the 17th century often sell at auction for anywhere between £10,000 – £80,000.
Above: a tall clock by Joseph Ward featuring japanned details dated to 1730-40
Increasingly decorative casings enhanced the grandeur of owning such a timepiece, especially in the 18th century when their high value made them exclusive items only afforded by aristocracy and royalty. London was known for both clock and cabinet makers, together producing much sought after designs. 18th century longcase clocks feature a mixture of British and exotic timber and veneer work, as well as lacquering, marquetry and chinoiserie or japanning features. An arch over the dial was also added in the early 18th century, featuring new aspects such as a moon and sun to show night and day.
Above: an eight-day longcase clock from 1700 by Thomas Tompion
You will notice that most clocks feature the name of the craftsman, this is because of the Clock Maker’s Company which encouraged all members to mark their work. Famous names from the 18th century include William Kent, Daniel Quare, and William Clement. 18th century longcase clocks sell at around £1000 for less detailed designs, but auction houses have seen important Queen Anne styles reach over £600,000.
Above: a detail from an 18th century Hermann Achenbach longcase clock featuring local time and a further ten cities, plus the sun and moon, zodiac, moon phases, days of the week and month
By the time of the industrial revolution, longcase clocks had become perfected and many of the 18th century styles persisted throughout the 19th century. Due to the rise of factories and commercial premises, a clock became an important necessity and demand rose for an affordable, practical option for business owners and workers. Famous names in this period include Will Kent and Jeremiah Standring who worked outside of London in the increasingly provincial design markets.
Above: a Thomas Dickenson longcase clock from 1807 featuring an oval painted enamel face on copper with brass hands
More fanciful 19th century clocks from the Regency period may include painted imagery on the dial of the clock, which was becoming larger – making some longcase clocks appear top-heavy. From the middle of the 19th century onwards an influx of American designs became more predominant, featuring much smaller mantle clocks which were increasingly preferred due to their easy maintenance and size. 19th century clocks can vary in estimate price from £50 to £6000, with detailed regency clocks fetching the highest prices.
Above: a regency longcase clock with painted decoration and dial, this is attributed to American clockmaker Thomas Seymour
Due to their height and need for a stable surface, longcase clocks were often positioned in the hallway of a home, making this the traditional location to keep them. This placement also ensured that all rooms in the house would be able to hear the chimes and some clocks even had precisely fretted panels to allow for a wider reach with their sound. Many of the clocks you come across today may have been comprised of many different elements, that is pieced together from surviving cases, dials and mechanisms from different periods. You can often see whether this is the case through telltale signs, such as a minute hand but no minute marks, a case or door which seems remarkably well fitted with no shrinkage, a dial that does not seem to quite fit the face or winding holes which do not lead to a winding mechanism.
Above: a tall clock by Tiffany & Co. dated to 1882–85
Why is a longcase clock called a grandfather clock?
In 1876 the song My Grandfather’s Clock became so popular that it became a nickname for all longcase clocks. The song tells the tale of a grandfather who had the clock from the day he was born, it marks events throughout his life by chiming and stops working the day that he dies. Typically, a grandfather clock is the tallest of the longcase variety, with shorter styles being referred to as grandmother clocks or even granddaughter clocks.
Above: a Jacob Diehl tall clock dated to 1800 featuring a floral design on enamel and a moon and sun dial
Caring for a longcase clock
One of the most important aspects of caring for a longcase clock is winding. Depending on the type of clock you own, it may last for one day, eight days, or up to a month before needing intervention. Most British clocks can be wound by a key or a crank, hold the clock in place as the key enters and wind it until you are unable to go any further – do not force it once you feel friction. Winding a clock usually takes around sixteen turns of the key, however, some may only allow for three or four turns to run for just a week.
Above: an illustration of a 19th century lady setting the time on her clock
Antique clocks of all kinds should be kept away from extreme temperatures and humidity levels, ideally without any constant fluctuation in their environment. This means avoiding areas with direct sunlight and radiators, air conditioning or heating vents, as well as fireplaces and rooms which have a draught. Dust and debris can build up upon a mechanism and deteriorate the function, as well as the dial, hands and decorative features. This is especially dangerous if the atmospheric particles contain fireplace soot or nicotine, as these harbour acidic particles.
As a general rule, longcase clocks should be moved as little as possible. A perfect location should have a completely flat surface to ensure the pendulum swings evenly. To make sure a longcase clock does not move when people pass by or due to general cleaning activities, it can be sensitively fixed to the wall. If you are planning on fixing your longcase clock to a wall or in position, please consult our team of conservators before using any household tools to achieve this.
Above: a clock face before and after restoration by our specialist team
As long as a longcase clock is kept in good atmospheric conditions, it should be safe from most forms of deterioration. General maintenance requires light cleaning without chemicals, simply a soft dry cloth applied gently to prevent any build-up of dust. Never apply household cleaning products or commercial oils for loosening joins and metals, as this can quickly deteriorate the historic materials. Any removal of stains or loosening of joins and mechanisms should be performed by a trained conservator.
Most longcase clocks should have a clip in place to secure the pendulum. When moving home, for storage purposes, maintenance or restoration, make sure to stop the mechanism from moving beforehand and secure it in place. In some cases, you may want to remove the pendulum and mechanism completely to reduce the risks of transportation or removal damage – be sure to consult one of our conservators or a horologist before attempting this yourself.
Longcase clock restoration
Our studio recently restored two longcase clocks including an ebonised day clock with handpainted chinoiserie details. The top of the clock read tempus fugit which is a popular latin motto found on clocks translating to time flies. It came to us with damage to the casing, which was repaired and in some areas completely restored by our furniture experts, whilst our horologist performed maintenance on the mechanism so that it would be in good working order following the conservation treatments.
Above: the chinoiserie decoration on the longcase door which was restored in our studio
Upon arrival, our team noted that the hood of the clock face had deteriorated, leaving the top of the mechanism partially exposed to the elements over time. This arch was replaced with new timber which was appropriate to the rest of the casing, each new piece was hand-cut by our furniture expert Dean, who then applied them with sensitive, traditional methods as not to disturb the original materials in modern adhesives. After being perfectly fitted it was finished with a matching wood stain, the result both protects the inner workings of the clock and brings back visual appeal.
Above: the process of creating a new hood by our furniture expert who uses traditional techniques
This design also featured three finials, that is the golden balls that sit upon the upper decorative casing. Two of these were damaged or missing, so our team recreated the missing elements by hand-carving new pieces to the exact dimension. They were then gilded to match the third original finial which was also revived with gold leaf.
Above: the process of hand carving and colour-matching the new finials created by our furniture team
There was also a historic build-up of dirt and contaminants across the casing which darkened the appearance of all of the fine chinoiserie. The front door panel had losses to the original decoration due to historic deterioration and had splits and chips in the wood in many areas. The plinth of the longcase clock featured an oriental scene featuring a man and a large bird but had become visually disturbed by a long crack.
Above: The bottom panel of the longcase clock following sensitive restoration work in our studio
For a historically appropriate restoration to take place, only the elements which truly required intervention received conservation treatment. This means that in some areas the antique nature of the clock can still be seen, but unstable or disturbed areas have been preserved and revived. The sensitive colour retouching by our experts never overtakes original details, allowing for historic and artistic integrity to remain intact. For example, the plinth panel with the long crack had this damage stabilised and filled, the lost paintwork and colour was retouched by our conservation team, but some stable dents and scratches remain intact as to fill and retouch these may take away from the historic nature of the piece.
Above: the clean and fully functional clockface following expert restoration treatments
Alongside this restoration of the case, the clockface and inner mechanism were restored by our horologist and replaced once the casing was complete. The dial was also sensitively cleaned to revive the original glowing finish. New glass was replaced in front of the dial to offer further protection.
How can we help?
If you have a longcase clock that requires restoration, conservation treatments, or professional maintenance, please contact our helpful team who will be happy to assist further.
To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576