Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2017 Part III:
Clocks of Staatsburgh

During June 2017, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the second year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

NYS Bureau of Historic Sites Furniture Conservator, David Bayne, organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including  Kirsten Schoonmaker from the Shelburne MuseumValentine Talland formerly from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michelle Smith, most recently at the National Library of France.

Part III in this series was written by Aubrey Skye Quasney, an artist, historian, and aspiring conservator from Pasadena, Maryland. In 2013, she graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Art History and Painting. Since then she has interned at the Walters Art Museum assisting with the curation and conservation of Islamic Arts for the traveling exhibition, Pearls on a String. Currently, she is museum director of the System Source Computer Museum in Hunt Valley, Maryland where she oversees the curating, restoration, and collection management. As an artist, she likes to bring creativity to all that she does, from painting portraits to finding new ways to present artifacts within museum collections. She is passionate about our collective histories and preserving them for the future through restoration, photography, and writing. She continues to work towards becoming a conservator of objects, with a specific interest in clock and watch restoration.

AIC Workshop Participant and Blog Author Aubrey Quasney

When walking through the extravagantly decorated rooms of Staatsburgh, there are many breathtaking details from the silk wall coverings to the fine furniture and enormous carpets. Inevitably you will probably miss a few amazing elements. I know I did when I took the tour the first time. It was a privilege to work in Staatsburgh during the AIC Preventive Conservation Workshop as each day there I discovered something new around a corner.

Most notable for me was the site's extensive collection of clocks throughout the house. There are different kinds of clocks in various bedrooms, common rooms, and servants areas giving one a feeling of how this historic house ticked back in the day.  A simple but beautiful Regulator octagon wall clock with a pendulum hangs just above the call bell box in the butler’s pantry and would have kept the dinning service on schedule. [i]

Regulator Wall Clock in the Butler's Pantry (photo: Aubrey Quasney)

An ornate ormolu – fire gilt bronze –  wall clock in the entrance hall would have greeted visitors as they convened.[ii]  A small alarm clock can be found on a maid’s bedside table.  An even smaller golden pocket watch with poly-chrome decoration is hidden away in a guest bedroom. The smallest of clocks were equally extravagant, reflecting the wealth of the owner.  The pocket watch was once carried purely as a symbol of status because when they first became popular they were poor time-keepers.[iii]

Pocket watch on the dresser of the Passage Room, a guest room for single females.  (photo: Carrie Miller Freeman)
The family had a vast collection of mantle clocks, and most of them were French. French mantle clocks were a common part of the decor in the homes of Gilded Age millionaires.  Many 18th century French mantle clocks were included in Ogden Mills' bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon his death.  You can see a few examples of the clocks he donated by clicking these links:  Example #1, Example #2, and Example #3 .  [iv]

Chinoiserie set on the Drawing Room Mantle  (photo: Aubrey Quasney)

The mantel clocks are some of the most magnificent pieces in the house.  The mantle clock in the drawing room is part of an amazing set of chinoiserie that also includes matching candelabra and andirons.

Clock in Staatsburgh's library

The clock in the library depicts classical cherubs holding up a black globe with gold stars, dial, and hands. Two other prominent mantle clocks are the 18th century French Imperial styled examples in the dining room and Mrs. Mills’ boudoir.
Clock on the fireplace mantle in the Dining Room (photo: Aubrey Quasney)

How were all these clocks maintained?  When the Milles were not at Staatsburgh, the clocks would still have to be cared for. They would need to be dusted, cleaned, and perhaps covered when not in use. Traditionally, the job of winding the clocks was given to an horologist or a trained footman. Winding had to be done at certain times of the day; ideally when the temperature was just right and the room vacant.[v] Each clock had its own unique keys, doors, and intricacies within the mechanisms. You might wonder why these clocks are not running now. Even if taken care of regularly, over years of use, the clock parts wear or break down and fixing them to working condition can be a difficult task.  This is especially true for mantel clocks set over a fireplace, as the heat and soot from the fire contribute to faster deterioration.  Many factors, especially airborne abrasives, accelerate the wear of the clockworks and after the abrasive buildup is cleared away, the parts can be misaligned or damaged.  Even a reliable clock will halt its ticking unless original parts are removed and replaced.

It is a long-standing debate whether to continue to wind antique clocks or let them remain still, particularly if the former requires replacing original parts and taking apart such an intricate, valuable, historical artifact.[vi]  Let's consider this for a moment.  Running any functional object will result in wear and handling, which contributes to the degradation of the parts. Excessive or improper cleaning only causes more issues like over-drying of bearings and stress corrosion cracking of brass that is exposed to ammonia solutions.[vii] It is possible to replicate specific parts of the clock, but that can also have challenges.  Replacing the inner workings of a clock still requires handling, which could potentially damage the clock.  It is important to note that conserving a non-functional clock is much less invasive (cheaper!) and preventive protection against corrosion and environmental hazards is the main concern for its stabilization and care.[viii]  Perhaps the least invasive solution to highlight a functional clock would be to purchase a replica clock and safely store the original.  

Marble mantle clock currently on in Mrs. Mills' bedroom (photo: Aubrey Quasney)
While considering the best ways to maintain and showcase Staatsburgh's historical clock and watch collection, it is important to recognize that the two biggest threats are environment and potential handling.  Prevention is key to the longevity of these objects. It is important to have a clean stabilized environment that is free of pests (especially spiders as their webs attract dust and can clog a clock’s movement).[ix] There should be an attempt to reduce the air particulate pollution generated by rugs, visitors, and windows.  A stable and appropriate relative humidity and temperature should be maintained to prevent parts from rusting, corrosion, darkening of silvers, and lubricants from drying out. Correct handling and limited human interaction only by professional horologists and conservators can prevent serious human damage and breakage. Over-winding and breaking of delicate dials and hands are tragic and can be avoided if a functional clock or watch is cared for correctly.[x]

Although it would be great to see all of these clocks tick and tock throughout the mansion, we know now that fixing priceless antique clocks can be detrimental and add to their deterioration over time.  puzzling with its tiny precise pieces.[xi] While working clocks in historic homes gives the still-lived-in feeling, a non-working clock shouldn’t be perceived as neglected, but perhaps stopping the time in the house to reveal history in a precise moment.[xii]

[i] Swedberg, Robert W., and Harriett Swedberg. Encyclopedia of Antique American Clocks. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Chapman, Marin, “Techniques in Mercury Gilding in the 18th Century,” Ancient and Historic Metals Conservation and Scientific Research, ed Jerry Podany and Brian B. Considine. (The Getty Conservation Institute, 1994)
[iii] Betts, Jonathan. "Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches." In The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping: Care and Conservation of Collections in Historic Houses, 331-44. Rev. ed. Swindon: The National Trust, 2011.
[iv] Vincent, Clare, J. H. Leopold, and Elizabeth Sullivan. European clocks and watches in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
[v] Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 4. Directed by Andy Goddard. By Julian Fellowes. Performed by Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern. January 7, 2013. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.amazon.com/Episode-1-Original-UK-Version/dp/B009ZQC7MY/ref=sr_1_3?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1501176771&sr=1-3&keywords=downton abbey. In this episode, Thomas explains to Jimmy how and when to wind a clock.
[vi] Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”
[vii] Reed, Brain, and Julie Snyder. "S-TOWN: Chapter I: If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll be surprised what you can learn." S-Town Podcast(audio blog), 2017. Accessed July 6, 2017. https://stownpodcast.org/.
Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”
[viii] Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”
[ix]Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”
[x] Moss. “Concerns regarding the Conservation of Functional Horological Objects.”
Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”
[xi] Reed, Brain, and Julie Snyder. "S-TOWN: Chapter I: If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll be surprised what you can learn." S-Town Podcast (audio blog), 2017. Accessed July 6, 2017. https://stownpodcast.org/.
[xii] Jonathan. “Chapter 29: Clocks and Watches.”

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