Antiques often come with a life story of their own. Like a person’s own story, the story of an object often includes aspects that can be neither proven or disproven. Connections to historical figures and events are often touted as a reason to enhance the monetary value of an object. Trying to trace the story of an object can be a challenge, but an enjoyable one.
Recently I visited a friend of mine who collects a variety of historical objects of many different types. A visit to his home is like visiting the expansive storage facilities of the Smithsonian. Everywhere you turn and look, you see something amazing and unique. This visit, while we were examining some early 19th century Ohio ledger books, I noticed a lonely and charred clock movement on top of a shelf. Since I had spent over ten years as the Director of the National Watch & Clock Museum, I could not help but want to know more about this movement.
My friend told me that he had acquired the movement, and what was left of the case, at an antique show decades ago. According to the man who sold the clock, it had belonged to Edward Lloyd, an early Governor of Maryland. The clock was allegedly a gift to Lloyd from the “Citizens of Maryland” and was damaged in a later fire. This provenance included a c. 1780 date and the name of the Lloyd plantation, all scrawled on the back of a photograph of the damaged clock. An interesting clock, with an equally interesting provenance, worth examination.
Images of the William Webster clock that is the subject of this post.
The first thing I wanted to do was to determine something about the clock itself. Who was the maker? When did he work? Would those facts support the provenance provided by the seller? The clock is a type of shelf clock commonly referred to as a “bracket” clock. These clocks have their roots in early hanging clocks, but took their more common form in the 17th and 18th centuries. This common form included often ornate designs, typically hardwood cases with burled finishes and molded bases. The dials of the clocks were engraved, often silvered, and sometimes included subsidiary dials as well. The dials were then surrounded with decorative cast spandrels.
The signature plaque located just below the “XII” indicator on the dial is engraved with the name “Wm Webster” with the word “Exchange” just below that. The movement’s back plate is engraved “Webster” and “London”. The Webster clockmaking business was founded by William Webster in 1711 and operated for nearly 200 years. The founder, William Webster, learned the trade from none other than the famous clockmaker Thomas Tompion. Webster even worked for a period as a journeyman clockmaker in Tompion’s workshop. Webster went on to start his own business at Exchange Alley, London in 1711 under the moniker of the “Dial and Three Crowns”. According to one source, this William Webster was the one who marked his clocks with “Exchange Alley” or “Change Alley”. He died in August 1735.
After the founder’s death the “Dial and Three Crowns” then passed to a son, also named William Webster. This William Webster was apprenticed to his father and he eventually became a Master of the Clockmakers Company in 1755. This William Webster died in 1770 and he left the business to his two sons, William and Richard. The son William died soon after his father, in 1779, and the business then passed to his brother Richard. Richard was a terrible businessman, and gambler, who ended up ruining the family business. Given the above history of the Webster clockmaking business, my friend’s Webster clock must date to sometime between 1711 and 1779.
Examples of clocks found in museum collections and auctions that are attributed to William Webster.
The time frame that clocks bearing the name William Webster were produced certainly fits with that given in the provenance. It is certainly possible that, around 1780, someone may have been able to acquire a William Webster bracket clock. What about the alleged owner of the clock? How does his timeline fit with that of the clock? The provenance states that the clock was owned by Edward Lloyd (1776-1834), who served as the Governor of Maryland from 1809-1811, and that it was a gift from the Citizens of Maryland. However, this Edward Lloyd would have been only around 1 year old in 1780, the only date mentioned in the provenance. We also know from our examination of the Webster family that the last William Webster died in 1779. These facts make it unlikely that this Edward Lloyd was the original recipient of the clock.
The likely date range of the clock would make it more likely to have been given to either his father, also named Edward Lloyd (1744-1796) though never a governor, or perhaps his great-grandfather Edward Lloyd (1671-1719) who served as a colonial governor of Maryland from 1709 to 1714. If the latter Lloyd was the recipient, the clock would have to have been produced between 1711 and 1719. Not entirely impossible and, given the relative simplicity of the clock, perhaps even probable. Either way, the c. 1780 date is problematic when all the other facts are considered.
The Lloyd family’s plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, called Wye Plantation (or Wye House), was originally built in the last half of the 1600s. The original house suffered a catastrophic fire sometime in the early 1780s and a new home was constructed after that (bet. 1781-1790). That house survives. There is an inventory mentioned in a recent master’s thesis about the furnishings of Wye Plantation before the fire, c. 1770, which states that there were two clocks; an “old” one valued less than £1 and another valued at £8. According to one source, the family provided a list of items destroyed in the fire so as to limit the amount of tax they would have to pay. The source stated that this document is in the family’s hands still but I have not been able to locate a copy. Was this Webster clock damaged in the fire that destroyed Wye House in the early 1780s? Does the c. 1780 date reference the date of the fire? Possibly.
There is no “smoking gun” piece of evidence that can verify the provenance of my friend’s William Webster bracket clock. The historical record, including the possible 1780 date in the provenance, seems to support the possibility that this clock once graced the rooms of Wye House. Unfortunately much of the Lloyd family records that might shed light on the veracity of this clock’s provenance were destroyed in the same fire that allegedly damaged the clock. Regardless of the clock’s true provenance, it survives as an example of a prolific and talented 18th century English clockmaker.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.