Louis-Jacques Vaillant, maître-horloger in 1787
This spectacular automaton clock is remarkable both for the impressive sculptural scale of its case, with muscular eagles emblematic of Jupiter triumphant over snakes, but also for the extraordinary complexity of its mechanisms, with not only a singing bird but also two amazing automaton tableaux, one depicting Vulcan at his forge and the other Neptune in his grotto, making it one of the most ambitious automaton models to be created in the Empire period. It is a celebration of the classical gods, conceived to reflect the glory of its illustrious patron.
Only three other examples of this remarkable model are known:
-The prototype for this model is almost certainly the pair of clocks supplied to Charles IV of Spain in 1804 by the widow of the clock maker Debelle, which remain in the Royal Spanish collection (illustrated in J. Ramon Colon de Carvajal, Catalogo de Relojes del Patrimonio Nacional. Madrid, 1987, pp. 99-102, cats. 83 and 84). These feature essentially the same case as the Franklin Institute example, but have just one automaton tableau per clock and do not have a singing bird mechanism
-A virtually identical clock, but with unsigned movement, formerly in the Ikle Collection, Switzerland and the Time Museum, Chicago, was sold Sotheby’s, New York, 19 June 2002, lot 216 ($339,500) and again Sotheby's, London, 6 July 2011, lot 33 (£825,250)
MADE FOR THE EMPRESS JOSEPHINE OR JOSEPH BONAPARTE?
The Franklin Institute clock was donated to the museum in 1936 by Josephine Bond Ingersoll (1860-1947), the widow of Stephen Warren Ingersoll (1851-1884), descendant of a distinguished Philadelphia family who first arrived in America in 1629. No record remained as to how this extraordinary clock entered the family’s possession. Because of the complexity of restoring the clock, it lay dormant in the museum’s collection until the 1950s, and after a lengthy restoration was brought back to Philadelphia with great fanfare.
The Franklin clock has traditionally been thought to have been made for Empress Josephine, a gift from Napoleon inspired by the pair in the Spanish Royal collection, and has for long been known as ‘The Empress Clock’. Given the magnificent complexity of the model it is certainly logical that it would have made for a patron as exalted as the Emperor and his celebrated spouse Josephine, but without further documentary evidence this theory must be treated with caution, as Napoleon is unlikely to have seen the pair in Madrid until he invaded Spain in 1808 (when the two clocks in the royal palace were looted by the French, only to be recovered by the Spanish at the battle of Vitoria in 1813), by which time he was becoming estranged from Josephine, eventually divorcing her in 1809. This chronology of course does not prevent Napoleon from commissioning either the Franklin clock or the Time Museum clock for Josephine at an earlier date to the Spanish pair, although almost all of Josephine's clocks at Malmaison were destroyed by the Prussians in 1815, making a connection to Josephine still more unlikely (information kindly supplied by Bernard Chevallier, formerly chief curator at Malmaison).
JOSEPH BONAPARTE AND THE PHILADELPHIA ELITE
Another intriguing possibility is that the Franklin clock might have been commissioned by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), who was made king of Spain from 1808-1813, and of course would have seen the pair of Spanish royal clocks during his time there. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Joseph escaped and eventually settled in the United States, In 1817 he sent his secretary and friend, Louis Mailliard, back to Europe to retrieve his valuable possessions which had been hidden at his Swiss château near Prangins. Mailliard travelled as an agent of Bonaparte’s Philadelphia friend, Stephen Girard, to disguise his mission – which was completed successfully when he returned to America five months later with Bonaparte's treasures. Bonaparte established himself in great style, initially in Philadelphia, and later acquiring the estate of Point Breeze nearby Bordentown, New Jersey which he filled with his magnificent art collection, including works by Rubens, Luca Giordano, Canova and Rembrandt. He entertained the elite of Philadelphia society, and although much of his collection was sold at auction in 1847, he is known to have gifted works of art to his friends in Philadelphia in his lifetime, for instance a Coypel painting of the Abduction of Europa which he gave to General Thomas Cadwalader, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although to date no mention of the Franklin Institute clock can be found in any accounts of Bonaparte's collection, it is intriguing to note a 'magnificent bronze Urania... with sphere and timepiece' from the Palais de Luxembourg in the 1847 sale of his collection, which must have been of a similar scale and grandeur to the Franklin clock.
The Ingersoll family were well established in Philadelphia at this time. Jared Jr., son of the King’s colonial agent, arrived in Philadelphia in 1771 to study law, and unlike his father who remained a royalist, wholeheartedly supported the Revolution against the British. His son Charles Jared Ingersoll (1782–1862) was a noted politician and francophile, and was elected to Congress in 1837. Ingersoll and Bonaparte must have been close - they met each other as early as 1803 in France when Ingersoll was posted to the American Embassy in Paris, and were both members of the elite American Philosophical Society, originally founded by Benjamin Franklin. Research in the Mailliard papers held in Yale has revealed that Bonaparte even gave Ingersoll a signed copy of a book of his life, inscribed ‘C.J. Ingersoll. Presented by the Count de Survillier’, the latter being the title which Bonaparte assumed in exile, and other gifts, including a 'grand caleche verte' in 1837. C.J. Ingersoll even read Bonaparte's obituary to the American Philosophical Society after his death. It is therefore perfectly conceivable that the Franklin Institute clock could have been gifted by Bonaparte to Charles Jared Ingersoll, and then remained in that distinguished family until it was gifted to the Franklin Institute in 1936 by Josephine Bond Ingersoll, the widow of Stephen Warren Ingersoll, Charles Jared's grandson. Stephen Warren Ingersoll died at a tragically early age in 1884, and therefore it is perhaps understandable that when his widow donated the clock over 50 years later, its previous connection to Joseph Bonaparte might have faded from memory.
A further possibility is that the clock could have descended within the family of Josephine Bond Ingersoll. Her grandfather, Dr. James Bond (1799-1882), was a wealthy doctor and traveled extensively, both in Europe and even in Uruguay, where he practiced medicine for several years, and where Josephine, a striking beauty, was born. He bequeathed everything to his grandchildren and therefore it is possible that he acquired the 'Empress' clock on his travels and then bequeathed it to his grand daughter, although if that was the case it would seem strange that she could not recall anything about its history when she gifted it to the Franklin Institute in 1936.
Another intriguing connection is that another ancestor of Josephine Bond's, Willamina Bond, married in 1779 John Cadwalader, the famous Revolutionary general and patron of Philadelphia cabinet-makers, whose son Thomas was, as mentioned above, a close friend of Joseph Bonaparte.
ATTRIBUTION OF THE CASE
The superb bronzes of the case are replete with classical imagery such as the eagle battling a serpent, a symbol since ancient Rome of good overcoming evil, and more specifically the badge of Jupiter, which may well also have been meant to be a subtle allusion to the near god-like Napoleon battling his foes. Further classical imagery is seen in the proud Bacchic rams, echoed by the goats and vine leaves flanking the clock dial.
Mounts of such exceptional, sculptural quality must have been made by one of the most accomplished bronziers of the time, one of the prime candidates being Claude Galle (1759-1815) of the rue Faubourg Saint-Germain, who was elected maître in 1786 and apprenticed to Pierre Foy at the end of Louis XVI’s reign. During the ancien régime he received significant commissions from the Garde Meuble and is known to have supplied aristocrats such as Louis-Alexandre Berthier and the Prince de Wagram for the château de Grosbois. He remained one of the pre-eminent bronziers of the Empire period and when his workshop was in full force he is reported to have had over four hundred employees. He supplied bronzes to Fontainebleau, Compiègne, Versailles and the Grand Trianon (sometimes in collaboration with Pierre-Philippe Thomire).
The overall design of the ‘Empress’ group of clocks, with the eagles perched precariously on volute handles of the vase-form body which tapers to the ram masks, relates in particular to a vase attributed to Galle in the Villa Hardt, Eltville, illustrated in H. Ottomeyer/ P. Pröschel et al., Vergoldete Bronzen, Munich, 1986, vol. I, p. 303, fig. XXXV.
The clock is signed Vaillant for Louis-Jacques Vaillant, who was made maître-horloger in 1787 and styled himself as horloger-mécanicien, which must refer to his skill at mechanical movements. Interestingly an automaton musical clock by Vaillant of broadly similar form remains at Malmaison (it was acquired at auction in 1930), which might explain the supposed connection of this form to Empress Josephine.
The stamp '...RNOVER(?)' to one of the internal rods of the singing bird mechanism gives a tantalizing clue to the maker of the extraordinarily complex automata of the Franklin clock, but to date can not be associated with a recorded maker. As this rod has been partially rethreaded, it is probable that the name is incomplete, and could also be the stamp of the metal-caster for that element, rather than of the actual automaton-maker.
Christie's would like to thank the Joseph Bonaparte scholar Peter Tucci, organizer of the recent exhibition 'From Waterloo to New Jersey: The Bicentennial of King Joseph Bonaparte's Escape to America', for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.