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Close Looking: Edward Duffield’s BMA Clock, in Context

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The French poet and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine once complained that museums are cemeteries of the arts, and it’s not hard to see why—separated from their original contexts, the objects in a museum can feel lifeless and embalmed: static monuments to a distant past. But even cemeteries, in the right conditions, can be surprisingly powerful and moving places. And if we look closely and think creatively, the most inert and seemingly remote museum object can become surprisingly vivid.

The Duffield clock, which was made in Philadelphia in around 1770 and is currently on view in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s American Wing, offers a useful example of what I mean. At first glance, it can feel intimidatingly formal: at nearly nine feet tall, it’s huge, and its sleek surfaces, made of wood, brass, and glass, suggest dignified sophistication. Clocks like these were among the costliest domestic objects in colonial America, and they were often placed in the corner of a public room, as a subtle but visible demonstration of a privileged family’s relative wealth.

But their placement was also motivated by convenience. Set in a parlor or on the landing of a staircase, a clock could be quickly consulted by family members, easily maintained by servants, and occasionally admired by guests—and heard throughout much of the house. Sometimes, clocks were also placed in kitchens, in order to help measure cooking times. More often, though, they served as points of reference for entire households, at a historical moment when personal timepieces were still rare.

 

Detail of Edward Duffield (clockmaker) and Martin Jugiez (carver), tall case clock, 1765-1772. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, BMA 1960.41.19.
Edward Duffield (clockmaker) and Martin Jugiez (carver), tall case clock, 1765-1772. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, BMA 1960.41.19.

Another way of saying this is that clocks were very early examples of domestic automatons. Today, we’re used to dynamic and largely programmable domestic conveniences: videos flicker on our screens; a smart dishwasher whirs; Bluetooth speakers stream music. But in the 1770s, houses were largely still and comparably quiet: beyond a fire in a hearth, the click of knitting needles, or the scratch of a pen, a clock’s swaying pendulum and turning hands were often the only moving objects in a house, and the measured tock and occasional chimes the only regular noise. Clocks were the ancestors of the devices that now permeate our lives.

They also contributed to a radical redefinition of time. Before 1700, indigenous Americans and rural Europeans had generally conceived of time in relation to natural cycles and particular tasks; time was largely ecological, seasonal, and practical. As pendulum-driven clocks became increasingly common, though, so too did the abstract, artificial system of clock time. By the 1740s, Philadelphia newspapers regularly referred to the hour and even the minute at which things happened, and both legislators and Shawnee delegates now alluded to the time ‘of the clock’ in scheduling meetings. The shape, the terminology, and even the experience of time were all changing.

Edward Duffield, who made the movement of the BMA’s clock, played an important role in this process. A local clockmaker, he supposedly grew tired of passersby ducking into his shop and asking him for the time, and thus erected the first public clock in Philadelphia. In the 1760s, he was hired to maintain the large State House clock, which was visible for blocks. And he was close friends with Benjamin Franklin—who, insisting that time is money, urged his readers to behave industriously and to avoid wasting time. Duffield’s clocks helped to support the Protestant notion that one should always be doing, rather than simply being. And in that sense, he was an early architect of our own 24/7 culture, with its similar emphasis on the value of constant productivity.

But it would be misleading to attribute this case clock wholly to Duffield. He did make the movement, but the clock as a whole was the product of a newly emerging global economy. Some of the components used by Duffield were made in Britain, parts of the case were made of yellow pine and tulip poplar trees felled in mid-Atlantic forests, and the stunning mahogany panel on the front of the case was harvested in the Caribbean—possibly by enslaved or indentured laborers. This clock, then, is a product of colonialism, exploitative labor practices and the deforestation of the Americas.

 

Detail of Edward Duffield (clockmaker) and Martin Jugiez (carver), tall case clock, 1765-1772. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, BMA 1960.41.19.
Time and material, in this clock, are not necessarily what they seem to be.

The clock is also characterized by several basic tensions between its materials and its form. Duffield’s name is engraved on the dial plate; it’s the product of slow, careful work with hard metal tools. But it’s rendered in a way that recalls examples in popular handwriting guides, which extolled fluid scripts that concealed the practice and labor involved in their production. 

Similarly, the finials at the top of the clock evoke dancing flames—but are made of carefully carved solid wood. Dense, permanent forms thus connote ethereal fire, and patiently engraved lines suggest rapid penmanship. Time and material, in this clock, are not necessarily what they seem to be.

Time was complicated in another sense, as well. In 1770, some Philadelphians looked back to ancient Rome as a model of responsible governance and civic responsibility; local buildings often emulated Roman structures, and the clock’s carved columns reflect this interest in classicism. At the same time, though, other Philadelphians, frustrated by strict imperial policies, had begun to argue for economic independence—and banned, in 1770, the importation of British materials. This clock was made, then, at a moment when a commitment to local craftsmanship and self-rule were intensifying, and a faith in old forms would soon yield to open revolution. 

In addition to thinking historically, though, might we also see the clock in looser and more associative terms? Standing before the clock, I’m reminded of Anne Truitt’s sculptures, several of which are also owned by the BMA. This piece was made in 1968, and stands six feet tall; its resolute verticality and tripartite composition are reminiscent of the clock. In a famous essay on Minimalist sculpture, the critic Michael Fried claimed that such works evoked, in their scale and their apparent hollowness, “the silent presence of another person.” Duffield’s tall case clock can have that effect, too, as its solemn, upright form recalls the disciplined posture of a sentry. We’re never quite alone, in its company.

 

Anne Truitt. A Wall for Apricots. 1968. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Helen B. Stern, Washington, D.C., BMA 1984.57. © Anne Truitt / Bridgeman Images.

The clock, then, can be seen in many ways. Certainly, it was a machine that once marked the hour and minute, and conveyed the current phase of the moon. But it also advertised the wealth of the owner, and it offered a means of taking part in a larger temporal community: one closely aligned with a sprawling network of colonies and industries.

Now in a museum gallery, it has acquired still other associations: it’s a residue of specific material culture and part of a large collection, with loose formal cousins in various directions. So, while it is a product of the eighteenth century, it also played a part in producing our own era, embodying modern notions of creativity, value, and time—and suggesting that cemeteries are never simply about the past.

 

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