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The Most Beautiful Clocks of the Louis XVI Period I

18 October 2022

Although he was the last king of the ancien régime in France, aristocratic life during the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792) was marked by an unheard-of refinement and elegance. Horological creations were particularly remarkable for their tasteful design, precious materials and flawless execution. These creations are the remaining vestiges of the splendour of Versailles, which was brought to an abrupt end by the French Revolution, and which are often symbolized by the tragic fate of Queen Marie Antoinette.

In this article, La Pendulerie invites you to explore some of the most beautiful clocks of the Louis XVI period

An Allegory of Study

During the whole of the 18th century, Paris was reputed for its elegant salons where aristocrats and lovers of literature from all over Europe gathered to discuss art, science and philosophy. This trend resulted in frequent references to Knowledge or Study, which became common in learned conversations. 

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 1 – Mantel clock, the “Geoffrin” model, movement by Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807), late Louis XV period, circa 1765. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

The very first “Study” clocks were indeed linked to the erudite society of Parisian salons. These clocks are now commonly known as the “Geoffrin” model, as their original design was created at the request of Madame Geoffrin (1699-1777), an influential Parisian hostess who regularly held salons. 

The “Geoffrin” clock was so fashionable that several examples entered the royal collections in France, Spain, and Sweden. The figure of a seated woman who was concentrating on her reading would serve as a prototype for other representations of the allegory of Study over the following decades.

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 2 – Neoclassical mantel clock “Allegory of Study”, movement by Gabriel-Pierre Peignat, case attributed to Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, early Louis XVI period, circa 1770-1775. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

During the reign of Louis XVI, the Parisian bronze caster François Rémond (1747-1812) created a particularly ingenious design. It was based on two figures modelled in 1776 by the French sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot for the Sèvres Royal Manufactory, of which two examples in bisque are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Rémond cast these figures in bronze and placed them on either side of the dial, achieving a perfectly balanced composition, as may be seen in his preparatory drawing.

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 3 – François Rémond, preparatory drawing for the “Study” clock, Paris, circa 1784. Private collection. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Produced from 1784 on, Rémond’s model was commercialised by Dominique Daguerre, a merchant of luxury goods who maintained an excellent working relationship with European royal courts. Louis XVI himself acquired two “Study” clocks for the Château de Saint-Cloud in 1788, while King George IV of England owned three examples.

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 4 – “Study” mantel clock in blue turquin marble, patinated and gilt bronze, movement by Renacle-Nicolas Sotiau, case attributed to François Rémond, Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1785. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Having benefited from the phenomenal success of the “Geoffrin” model, Rémond’s “Study” clocks remained popular until the Restoration period, that is, the 1830s. Certain variants were produced – sometimes quite unique in their treatment of decorative details – at the request of those who commissioned them.

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 5 – “Study” mantel clock in gilt, patinated and silvered bronze and marble, case attributed to François Rémond, Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1785. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Cercles tournants

Cercles tournant clocks (cercles tournants means “rotating rings” in French) are a specific type of Neoclassical clock that features annular dials that rotate horizontally around the case. They were best suited to vase-form marble or gilt bronze cases inspired by classical antiquity, which had recently come into fashion due to archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 6 – Gilt bronze mantel clock in the form of a neoclassical lidded vase, signed “Cronier à Paris”, the case attributed to Robert Osmond, Paris. Transition period between Louis XV and Louis XVI, circa 1770. Tsar Paul I acquired an identical example bearing the same signature for the Pavlovsk Palace, near Saint Petersburg. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

In 1778, French architect Richard Mique erected a remarkable folly representing the temple of Love in the newly created English garden at Petit Trianon, the domain of Marie Antoinette. This construction was unanimously admired by contemporaries and was imitated in several horological creations, thus adding new types of cercles tournants clocks.

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 7 – “Temple of Diana”, white marble and gilt bronze mantel clock, Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1785. An identical example is in the British Royal Collection. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Due to their unusual movements and easily recognizable style, cercles tournants clocks became highly fashionable in the late 18th century, as every influential collector wanted to have at least one in his home. Some collectors commissioned exclusive and personalized pieces, as was the case for Elisabeth Auguste (1721-1794), Electress of Bavaria and Electress Platine of the Holy Roman Empire, who had her coat of arms included in the design.

Fig. 8 – “The Altar of Venus” cercles tournants clock, Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1775-1780, no doubt commissioned by Electress Elisabeth Auguste. This clock has the particularity of integrating a cercles tournants system into a regular composition; on the discreet dial, luxuriously adorned with rhinestones, the time is indicated by the cross on the top of the princely crown. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Lyre Clocks

The lyre, a musical instrument emblematic of the Greek poets, is associated with Apollo, the protector of the arts and leader of the Muses. This iconography was very much in harmony with the codes of the elegant and erudite French aristocracy during the 18th century. 

Lyre clocks are very distinctive, with their open cases through which one may admire the beauty of the mechanical movement. Clockmakers of the time managed to take full advantage of the lyre form by making the instrument’s cords a part of the compensating pendulum. 

Antique Louis XVI Mantel Clocks
Fig. 9 – White marble and gilt bronze lyre clock, movement by Jacques-Thomas Bréant, enamels by Joseph Coteau (1740-1801), Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1785. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

A luxurious type of lyre clock, with a porcelain case, was created in 1785 by the Sèvres Royal Manufactory. Two of the first examples were presented to Louis XVI in 1785/86; the king acquired them for the Versailles Palace. Although both were sold during the French Revolution, one was eventually returned to its original location in the Salon des Jeux. Given the high cost of production and the exacting qualitative requirements, porcelain lyre clocks were almost exclusively reserved for royals and their inner circle.

Fig. 10 – Porcelain lyre mantel clock from the Sèvres Royal Manufactory, movement by Dieudonné Kinable, enamel dial by Dubuisson, Paris, late Louis XVI period, circa 1785-1790. This example is almost identical to the one belonging to Louis XVI that is now placed in the Salons des Jeux at Versailles, featuring the signs of the Zodiac on the dial’s outermost border. The bezel of this clock is made up of an exquisite ring of rhinestones. © La Pendulerie – Agence Phar

Dieudonné Kinable was a clockmaker who specialised in movements for porcelain lyre clocks, as he purchased the greatest number of cases from Sèvres. Some of his creations even crossed the English Channel; some of them are today in the Royal British Collection and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Y. Huang