Unusually among clockmakers the Vulliamys numbered most of the clocks they made, openly doing so from 1788 until 1854, when the firm closed (Smith 1994, p.428). The survival of two Vulliamy works books (now with the British Horological Institute at Upton Hall) gives invaluable information regarding the date of manufacture and ownership of many clocks made by the business. The serial numbers recorded in the two books are respectively 296-469 and 746-1067. The first book covers the years 1797-1806, although the construction and delivery dates of some of the clocks continue to 1809, with some undelivered even then (Smith, 1991, p.621).
The workbook page for clock 309 reveals that it was delivered to the novelist and connoisseur William Beckford (1760-1844). The entry shows the workmen and the cost of the work:
'309 Small black Marble Clock 2 bronze lions
Day the Marble ... £5
Bullock the Mov[emen]t ... £5.5.-
L & Drew the dial plate ... -9.-
Culver engraving the hands ... -5.-
Crockett the gilding ... £3.3.-
Brown engraving the small plate ... -3.6
Monke(?) casting & chasing the Lions ... £2.2.-
Maas (?) the Brass ring ... -2.-
Melat (?) ... -5.-
Angunsin (?) the brass work ... £2.5-
Osburn the Blown Glass ... £1.5-
Velvet ... -8.-
Deld to W. Beckford, Esq.
March 5. 1799'
Vulliamy made a series of 'lion' timepieces, with some variations to their designs but all with drum cases and on rectangular plinths. The present example is one of the small models which date from an earlier period in the firm's production. Later models were distinguished by having eagle finials, lions positioned along the plinth rather than across it and engine-turned dials (these include clocks 483, 498, 591, 618, 863). Variations on this theme include clocks with flattened disc finials comparable to that on the present clock but with long lions (316 and 344, with enamel dials and 466, with ormolu dial). Other known lion clocks of very closely related design to the present example (flattened disc finial, lions across the plinth, enamel dial, recessed ormolu plinth panelling) include:
No.317; Phillips, London, 17 December 1996, lot 161
No.318; Phillips, London, 8 December 1998, lot 252
No.352; Christie's, London, 13 April 1989, lot 2
No.389; Christie's, London, 17 November 1988, lot 22
William Beckford (1760-1844), renowned connoisseur, traveller and gentleman architect, was celebrated in his youth as the author of the romantic novel Vathek. Famed through his Jamaican properties as 'England's wealthiest son', the 'Kitty' Courtenay scandal, as well as the tragic early death of his wife, caused Beckford's almost total withdrawal from both public and conventional social life. Instead his energies were devoted to the formation of art collections and libraries as well as to music, writing and travelling. Beckford perhaps best captured public attention through his replacement of Fonthill Splendens, the Wiltshire mansion of his father Alderman William Beckford (d.1770) with Fonthill Abbey. This monumental Abbey, demonstrating his 'Eye for the Magnificent', was built for him by the architect James Wyatt (d.1813), Surveyor of the Royal Architectural Board of Works.
Beckford, who had supported the Revolution and was in Paris at the fall of the Bastille in 1789, for many years rented the hôtel d'Orsay, returning from October 1790 to June 1791, November 1791 to May 1793 and again from May 1801 to May 1803. His beloved Fonthill was finally finished by 1807, and Beckford lived there until its spectacular sale was advertised in the early 1820s, when Mr. Christie published a catalogue of the 'Magnificent effects at Fonthill Abbey..to be sold ..on Tuesday, October 1, 1822 and the nine following days'. However, the estate and much of the contents, apart from the smaller objets d'art, were sold by private treaty to John Farquhar, James Christie's banker no less! And it was then Farquhar who instructed Phillips to sell the majority of the Abbey furnishings in the following year.
Beckford's formation of eclectic and luxurious collections of rare curios continued at his new homes in Lansdown Crescent, Bath and at Gloucester Place and, subsequently, at Baker Street, London. At Bath, Beckford created a garden belvedere pavilion, which provided him with a museum treasury in the manner of a European Kunst or Wunderkammer.
During Beckford's stately visit to Portugal in 1787 he took into his service Gregorio Franchi (d.1828), a chorister in Lisbon's College of Music, who was later appointed a 'Chevalier' through Beckford's contacts with the Portuguese Royal family. Franchi shared Beckford's enthusiasm for works of art, and acted as his agent and faithful retainer. He once explained that 'One of [Beckford's] whims is never to discuss business with the person concerned and consequently I have to broach it'. It was he who kept the 'Accounts' of purchases and supervised their repair, transport etc., and so closely were the two of them involved in the assemblage of 'Good Taste', that Beckford was driven to complain in 1813: 'I see from the buying mania which dominates you that we are well on the way to ruin'.