Exceptional Mantel or Desk Clock
“Regulator with Remontoir d’Egalité”
The Case Attributed to the Cabinetmaker Jean-Ferdinand-Joseph Schwerdfeger
Paris, Directory-Consulate period, circa 1795
– Probably the clock that was estimated at 500 francs in 1830 in the study of the well-known porcelain manufacturer Christophe Dihl (1752-1830): “A regulator by Robin à Paris, with seconds and date, compensation balance with thermometer, in a glazed mahogany case”.
The enamel dial, signed “Robin”, also bears the mark “dub”, which is that of Etienne Gobin, known as Dubuisson (1731-1815), a celebrated Parisian enameler who was a contemporary and rival of Joseph Coteau. It indicates the Roman numeral hours, the minutes graduations, the seconds, and the annual calendar, with indication of the date and the months of the year, as well as the equation of time, which shows the difference between true time and mean time. Its remarkable movement with complications has a Graham escapement and a constant force remontoir d’égalité, a bimetallic gridiron pendulum with a pyrometer that bears information on the temperature of dilation of metal, and two weights for the going train. The mahogany or mahogany-veneered architectural case has a slightly protruding cornice and is glazed on all sides, which allows the remarkable and complex movement to be viewed. The clock is elegantly adorned with finely chased matte-gilded bronze mounts. The entablature of the cornice is decorated with a molding chased with water leaves and adorned with an egg-and-dart frieze. The glazed panels are framed by twisted cord and stylized leaf friezes. The top spandrels feature scrolls and vine leaves, and a magnificent fringed drapery and leafy garland highlight the curve of the dial. The molded protruding base is adorned with a frieze of parsley leaves. The clock is raised upon four quadrangular gilt bronze feet.
In addition to its highly precise movement with complications and its excellent craftsmanship, the present clock is noteworthy for its polished mahogany architectural case, whose sober design was intended to showcase the ingenious and extraordinary mechanism, as well as the beauty of the dial. One particular cabinetmaker specialized in creating such cases toward the end of the 18th century: Ferdinand Schwerdfeger (1734-1818). Schwerdfeger was mentioned several times as “Ferdinand” in several early 19th century auctions. Upon the death of his wife in 1803, his workshop was described as containing almost exclusively mahogany clock cases. It was Schwerdfeger who made the case for the geographic clock that Antide Janvier presented in 1791 to King Louis XVI, which is today in the Musée national du château de Fontainebleau (illustrated in M. Hayard, Antide Janvier 1751-1835, Horloger des étoiles, p. 1995, p. 79). It was very likely the same cabinetmaker – who also made luxury furniture for pour Marie-Antoinette – who was entrusted with the creation of the case of the present clock, whose design is particularly remarkable. Today only a few comparable clocks are known to exist. One example, signed Lepaute, whose design is less elegant, was delivered in 1804; it was intended for the bedchamber of Napoleon at Fontainebleau Palace (illustrated in J-P. Samoyault, Pendules et bronzes d’ameublement entrés sous le Premier Empire, Paris, 1989, p. 73). A second clock, signed “Robin”, is illustrated in Tardy, La pendule française, 2ème partie: du Louis XVI à nos jours, Paris, 1975, p. 325.
Robert Robin (1741 - 1799)
Having become a master horologist in November 1767, he was one of the most important Parisian horologists of the last third of the 18th century. He received the honorary titles of Valet de Chambre-Horloger Ordinaire du Roi et de la Reine in 1783 and 1786. He enjoyed an extraordinary career, distinguishing himself by his exceptional contribution toward the improvement of time measuring instruments.
In 1778, the Academy of Sciences approved two of his inventions, one of which led to the construction of an astronomic clock with a meridian traced on a pyramid, which was acquired by the Menus Plaisirs for Louis XVI that same year; Robin published a very detailed historical and mechanical description of that clock. He also made mantel regulators with astronomic indications and compensation balance, of which the Marquis de Courtanvaux, a man of science and a great connoisseur of precision horology, was one of the earliest acquirers. During the Revolution he made decimal watches and clocks. He worked in the Grande rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (1772), the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois (1775), the rue Saint-Honoré in the l’Hôtel d’Aligre (1778) and the Galeries du Louvre in 1786.
For his desk regulators, Robin chose very sober architectural cases, which look extraordinarily modern to contemporary viewers. He always worked with the finest artisans of the day, including the bronziers and chasers Robert and Jean Baptiste Osmond, Pierre Philippe Thomire, François Rémond and Claude Galle, the cabinetmakers Jean-Henri Riesener, Ferdinand Schwerdfeger and Adam Weisweiler, the enamellers Barbezat, Dubuisson, Merlet and Coteau for the dials, and Richard and Montginot for the springs.
Robert Robin’s two sons, Nicolas Robert (1775-1812) and Jean-Joseph (1781-1856), were also fine clockmakers and ably continued to run their father’s workshop.
Dubuisson (1731 - 1815)
Étienne Gobin, known as Dubuisson, was one of the best enamellers working in Paris during the latter part of the 18th century and the early 19th century. During the mid 1750’s he was employed at Sèvres, then opened his own workshop, being recorded in the 1790’s in the rue de la Huchette and, circa 1812, in the rue de la Calandre. Specializing in enamelled watch cases and clock dials, he is known for his great skill and attention to detail.
Ferdinand Schwerdfeger (1734 - 1818)
Ferdinand Schwerdfeger is one of the most important Parisian cabinetmakers of the late 18th century. After becoming a master in May 1786, he opened a workshop in Paris and quickly gained a following. His work, however, remains little known due to his becoming a master shortly before the Revolution, and to the fact that he rarely stamped his work. Among the pieces that may be attributed to him with certitude, one should mention an ensemble delivered to Marie-Antoinette, as well as several regulator and clock cases for some of the finest horologists of the day, including Antide Janvier, Jean-Simon Bourdier and Robert Robin (see M-A Paulin, Schwerdfeger, ébéniste de Marie-Antoinette, in L’Estampille/L’Objet d’art, October 2003).