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  Reader's letter | March 2010 | Clocks Magazine

French lanterns

The January issue of Clocks carries an article on a Normandy clock, by Howard Bradley. Mr Bradley correctly refers to his clock as a lantern clock: the frame of the clock consists of a bottom and top plate separated by four columns, the striking and going trains are placed behind one another, and the gears pivot in strips of metal that are held in place by trapezium-shaped wedges. A bell is placed on top of the clock. Bradley raises a number of questions with regard to the clock. Having been interested for many years in French wall clocks in general, and in French lantern clocks in particular, I may be able to provide some of the answers.

Mr Bradley’s clock was probably made in the second half of the 18th century. It is unlikely that it was made earlier, as it has both hour and minute hands. The anchor escapement also suggests second half of the 18th century; earlier anchor escapements are very rare. The simple construction—the clock goes without doors, back plate, bell straps pinned into extensions of the columns or pinnacle—suggests 18th rather than 19th century.

Lantern clock making in the coastal areas, including Normandy, came to an end at about 1850. Lantern clocks were always powered by weights. Mr Bradley’s clock has one weight and a continuous chain. The continuous chain—endless cord—solution was an invention from about 100 years earlier.

The clock Bradley describes is made of iron, except for the wheels. Clockmakers working in rural France used iron or messing (a copper-zinc alloy), or a combination. Only in Paris and Lyon, the two larger cities, was messing the preferred material.

The pictures presented in Bradley’s article suggest that the clock in its present state does not have a dial, hands, frets or a pendulum. That may be unfortunate for the owner, but it would not have helped much to say more about the origin of the clock or its age. French lantern clock dials made outside the main urban centres were made of every possible material—iron (painted or engraved), messing (engraved or with cartouches), iron or messing with or without a chapter ring, and even pottery. An example of a Normandy lantern clock with a dial made of pottery is shown in the photograph. This clock has columns made of messing and pinnacles. Frets were also made in many different designs and of different materials. As yet no one has succeeded in bringing order in the wide variety of styles, technical details and materials used in the case of French lantern clocks; it may prove impossible to ever bring together sufficient evidence to do so.

Mr Bradley compares his clock to the Comtoise clock. It should be remarked that the lantern clock and the Comtoise clock are entirely different types of clock. Notable differences include the positioning of the gear trains (next to each other in Comtoises, behind each other in lanterns), the use of rack striking in Comtoises as compared to countwheel striking in lantern clocks, and the way in which the weights are raised: with a winding key in case of the Comtoise and by pulling the other end of the chain or rope in case of the lantern clock. The lantern clock evolved from 16th century Gothic clocks; the Comtoise is derived from the clocks placed in clock towers from the 15th century onwards.

Aart Schrevel, Netherlands

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