Lantern Clocks

A lantern clock is a type of antique weight-driven wall clock, shaped like a lantern. They were the first type of clock widely used in private homes. They probably originated before 1500 but only became common after 1600 in Britain around 1620.

Origin of the Name

There are two theories of the origin of the name ‘lantern clock’. One is that the name derived from the shape; the clock resembles a rectangular lantern of that period, and like a lantern was hung on the wall. The other is that it refers to brass, the main metal of which lantern clocks are made. Copper alloys, of which brass is one, were often called latten in earlier times and ‘lantern’ could be a corruption of this old word. In inventories of deceased clock makers, lantern clocks usually are simply referred to as ‘house clocks’, ‘chamber clocks’ or just ‘clocks’, since in 17th century England they were almost the only type of domestic clocks that existed. It was only after a century had passed, when other types of domestic clocks began to be used in British houses, that more descriptive names for it appeared. Other names used for these clocks are bedpost, birdcage or Cromwellian clocks. ‘Sheep’s head clock’ was a fashionable term for a certain type of lantern clock that had an extremely large chapter ring covering almost the entire front.

Origin of Lantern Clocks

The English lantern clock is closely related to lantern clocks that can be found on the European continent. Most likely a group of craftsmen from the Low Lands (Flanders) and France, of which some were clock makers, had established themselves in London at the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time the middle classes in towns and cities of England began to prosper slowly and a need for a new phenomenon arose: the domestic clock. Until that time clocks in English houses were confined to the nobility and ordinary people were dependent on the tower clocks of the local churches.

Clock that was signed ‘N. Vallin 1598’ Picture of a replica in the Dutch Museum ‘Van Speelklok tot Pierement’ in Utrecht. The original clock is displayed in the British Museum in London.

It is generally accepted that the first lantern clocks in England were made by Frauncoy Nowe and Nicholas Vallin, two Huguenots who had fled from the Low Lands.

Style characteristics

Lantern clock were made almost completely in brass, whereas most earlier clocks had been constructed from iron and wood. Typical lantern clocks comprised a square case on ball or urn feet, a large circular dial (with a chapter ring extending beyond the width of the case on early examples), a single hour hand, and a large bell and finial. The clocks usually had ornate pierced fretwork on top of the frame.

The main style characteristics of English lantern clocks are similar to its Continental relatives. In brief: a wall clock with square bottom and top plates surmounted by a large bell, four corner pillars, a series of vertical plates positioned behind each other and a 30-hour movement with one or more weights. The English variant has some specific details that will be discussed in the next paragraphs. At the start of the 17th century the style gradually evolved to a standard to which all clockmakers more or less complied. The guild supervised the clockmakers who were compelled to work within a prescribed method. Suppliers to the clockmakers’ trade contributed to this general style as well. For example the brass founders supplied stylistically identical clock posts to several clock makers. In contrast to the Dutch variants, such as stool clocks, English lantern clocks were entirely made of metal (brass and steel).

Lantern clocks were originally weight driven, usually one weight for the time keeping and a second for striking. A few modern lantern-style clocks were constructed with spring mechanisms and many surviving examples of the original weight-driven type have been converted to spring or pendulum mechanisms.

Guild system

In only a few decades the lantern clock became very popular in London and from there its popularity spread to the entire country. This is derived from the vast quantity of lantern clocks that still exist. Dozens of clockmakers produced great numbers of these clocks in the city of London during the 17th century. This huge productivity was the result of the high demand for this popular clock in combination with an effective guild system. In 1631 King Charles I granted a charter for a clockmaker guild in London: the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, which exists to this day. Many of the well known clock makers from that era were freemen of this guild. Many small companies were established in Lothbury in London that functioned as suppliers for the clockmakers. A clockmaker could benefit from the services of, for example, brass founders who supplied cast brass clock parts, dial plates, finials, pillars, frets etcetera or employ engravers who would carry out the engraving of the dial plates and frets. The guild assured the quality of the products that left the clockmaker’s workshops. Before a clockmaker could become a freeman, able to set up his own shop, he had to spend 7 years as an apprentice learning the trade. This insured independent clockmakers a plentiful supply of apprentices, who in fact were cheap labourers that helped to attain this high productivity.

Influence of the Renaissance

Style characteristics were copied from prints that were available for craftsmen. Under the influence of the Renaissance, prints with motives and patterns from the Classical antiquity found their way to the workshops. They served as examples for the clock pillars that were inspired by columns from Greek temples. During the 17th century the tulip became very popular to an extent of a real tulip mania. Prints with pictures of tulips were a rewarding subject for the adornment of the dial plates of lantern clocks. In the early 17th century lantern clocks got their characteristic shape which hardly changed during the 17th and halfway through the next century as a result of all this.

Clock parts

The London Clockmakers equipped their lantern clocks with four pillars that were inspired by classical columns. Attached to these pillars are classical vase-shaped finials and well-shaped feet. To those finials a bell strap is attached that spreads from four corners and holds a bell. To hide the hammer and the clock movement from the spectator three frets are attached to the finials. The front fret is pierced and is engraved whereas the two side frets are pierced but usually left blank. The front of the clock case consists of an engraved dial plate on which a circular dial ring is attached. Almost all lantern clocks have just one clock hand, the one that indicates the hours. A standard lantern clock only strikes the hours on a large bell and is often equipped with an alarm that rings the same bell. Two doors provide access to the movement and are hinged at the sides of the clock. One or more weights are hanging from ropes or chains at the bottom of the clock.