Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), was on the throne when the first English lantern clocks started to appear in England in about 1600. Alamy.com
English Lantern Clocks
The English lantern clock, or ‘house clock’, 'chamber clock' and 'clock' as it was known during the seventeenth century, first appeared in its familiar and well-loved form around the year 1600, at the end of the Elizabethan age. It was possibily a direct development from the iron clocks, generally called ‘Gothic’ clocks, which had been made by clockmakers across Europe including Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland and which wealthy households in England, requiring a convenient domestic clock, had imported into this country.
Above A late 16th century Italian miniature iron wall clock dating about c1595. Iron case and movement; weight-driven with verge escapement and foliot; striking-train with count-wheel set at a right-angle to the train. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum
Below An early 17th century English miniature brass lantern clock dating about c1610 and probably made in London. Note the subtle similarities between this 'brass' clock case to the earlier Italian 'iron' clock case shown above and suggesting a possible development? Private collection, Photographed by Bill Bruce.
These iron clocks, apart from some elaborate sculptural and almost jewel-like spring table clocks affordable only by the extremely wealthy, were really the only available domestic clocks during the Tudor era from the reign of Henry VIII onwards. It is not known if there were any native English clockmakers making domestic clocks at this early date but we do know that King Henry imported foreign clockmakers, such as Nicholas Urseau who was possibly French and working in London, at Hampton Court, by 1531. There is, in a private collection in this country, an iron ‘Gothic’ clock with a brass dial which is punch engraved along the top with the name ‘Mr John Mere of Salisbury’. Although there is an elaborate, but almost indecipherable, inscription along the bottom of the dial, which includes the date 1567, it is not clear whether John Mere was the maker or owner of the clock.
Iron ‘Gothic’ clocks are a miniature version of the tower, or turret, clock. These turret clocks were being made by blacksmith-clockmakers and they were slowly spreading across the country into church towers and other public places. The population of England was reliant on these public clocks for their time keeping, as domestic clocks for use in the home were unavailable except for the very rich. However, evidence does exist for the early use of domestic clocks, in home surroundings in contemporary art. For example a working drawing of 1528 for a painting, now lost, by Hans Holbein, the Younger of Sir Thomas More and his family sitting in a group with, in the background, a ‘Gothic’ clock hanging on the wall.
An Iron Gothic clock from the renaissance period. Probably made in Italy around c1595. Private Collection, Photographed by private collector.
Who actually made the first English lantern clock version in brass, of the iron clock, is not known. At the turn of the seventeenth century there were only a handful of clockmakers working in this country, mainly in the Blackfriars area of London and many of these were refugees seeking to escape religious persecution from catholic Europe. Some of these clockmakers have subsequently become quite well known, such as Francis Nowe and John Vallin and especially his son, Nicholas. In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the earliest known domestic ‘chamber clock’, which can be proved to have been made in England. It is signed frauncoy Nowe fecit a London 1588. This clock is in an elaborately engraved brass case and although not of the familiar lantern clock design, with exposed pillars, it is very much recognisable as a forerunner of the lantern clock but. Unfortunately, there are later alterations including the mechanism of the clock itself which is a later seventeenth century replacement.
Showing the earliest known domestic ‘chamber clock’, (with later alterations) which can be proved to have been made in England. It is signed frauncoy Nowe fecit a London 1588. Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
King James I
Queen Elizabeth I of England died at Richmond Palace on 24 March 1603 and was succeeded by her cousin twice removed, King James VI of Scotland (where he had ruled since 1567), uniting the crowns of Scotland and England.
King James I of England and VI of Scotland by John de Critz, oil on canvas, 1610. Image by Alamy.com
James had barely got comfortable on his new English throne before a devastating outbreak of plague swept through London and the surrounding countryside. This was to be one of the deadliest instances of plague in England's history, eventually claiming around a quarter of London's population including the death's of Francis Nowe and both John and Nicholas Vallin. However, it should be recognised that as they made the first weight driven chamber clocks that can be definitely attributable to makers working in England. Thus, Francis Nowe and Nicholas Vallin must be regarded as the fathers of the lantern clock as we have come to know it.
Plague Doctor. Image by Alamy.com. A plague doctor was a physician who treated victims of bubonic plague during epidemics mainly in the 16th and 17th century. These physicians were hired by cities to treat infected patients regardless of income, especially the poor that could not afford to pay. wikipedia.org. There were 30,000 deaths due to the plague in 1603 including that of Francis Nowe and both John and Nicholas Vallin.
Lantern Clock Makers
Robert Harvie is the first native-born maker of lantern clocks in London, by whom only a few examples are known to survive today. He made the earliest known surviving English lantern clock which is now in the United States of America. Robert had a younger brother, Thomas, who was apprenticed to him and left him his tools and a clock when he died in 1615. Other very early lantern clock makers included Peter Closon and William Bowyer who were prolific makers of that time. Bowyer was making clocks in Leadenhall Street by the 1620s, Closon 'near Holborne Bridge' by 1630. Another first-generation lantern clockmaker William Selwood was working in London, 'near Bartholomew Lane end' in Lothbury from the late 1620s.
Above. Showing an important early lantern clock by Thomas Harvie c1616. He was apprenticed to his older brother, Robert, who died in 1615 and left Thomas "one of my clokes ymediatly", along with a vice and some tools. Thomas Harvie was made free of the Clothworkers' Company in 1615 and took his first apprentice in 1616. Private collection, Photographed by Bill Bruce.
Above. Showing a fine early lantern clock by William Bowyer. He is believed to have been working in London as early as 1621. William Bowyer was probably the finest maker of lantern clocks in London up to the English Civil War. Private collection, Photographed by Lee Borrett.
I would like to thank the following for providing me with images and for allowing me to use any previously published material for this article on early lantern clocks.
My thanks go out to Bill Bruce who allowed me to use his own material for this website.
My thanks go out to the private collector(s) who allowed me to use an mage(s) of their clock on this website
My thanks go out to Victoria & Albert Museum, London who allowed me to use images of the earliest known domestic ‘chamber clock’ signed frauncoy Nowe fecit a London 1588.
My thanks go out to The British Museum, London who allowed me to use images of a late 16th century Italian miniature iron wall clock.
My thanks go out to Brian Loomes for allowing me to use any previously published material of his own work on Robert Harvie which I have used for this article.