“..the statue is a good likeness of “the Father of the Republic”... There are connected with this work other devices, entirely American, which cannot fail to make it desirable to the Patriots of your country.”
-Excerpt from letter, Nicolas Dubuc to an unnamed Baltimore gentleman, 1815.
Embodied with symbolism of American distinctiveness, strength and unity, these mantel clocks with the figure of George Washington have long stood as iconic representations of the country and for many, the maker’s words cited above ring as true today as they did two hundred years ago. While the clocks have been celebrated in the scholarship of American decorative arts for over a century, it is only in the last decade that key details regarding their manufacture have been discovered, details that have implications for the understanding of the particular messages that these clocks were meant to convey. Research undertaken by Lara Pascali revealed that the clockmaker/bronzier listed at the address on the clocks’ dials was Jacques Nicolas Pierre Francois Dubuc, rather than his younger brother Jean-Baptiste Charles Gabriel Dubuc, who had previously been credited as the maker. Furthermore, Pascali found an 1815 letter written by “l’aine” (the elder) Nicolas Dubuc to an unnamed gentleman in Baltimore detailing his plan to make such clocks in two sizes for the American market. This letter, together with the fact that Nicolas Dubuc is listed at the address on the dial only until 1817, provides a short two-year time frame for the production of the clocks (Lara Pascali, “’Desirable to the Patriots’: French Washington Clocks for the American Market” (Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, 2006–2007), cited in Baltimore Museum of Art, “Symbols of the New Republic,” (Teacher’s Guide, 2014), available at artbma.org).
Made beginning in 1815 rather than in the few years following Washington’s death, the clocks were not simply a memorial to the first President but also a response to the undercurrents of American life following the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December 1814 and as demonstrated by Peter Kenny:
In this context the Washington clocks can be read as allegories for a renewed sense of national purpose and identity, as well harbingers of the next chapter in American political life: the Era of Good Feelings, a period associated with the years of the Monroe presidency (1817-1825) and marked by a national mood of unity (E Pluribus Unum) and the lack of partisan factions. We had fought one revolution for our political freedom and now another for our commercial freedom. And Washington, the father of our nation, whose exploits and attributes were already engraved in the minds of all Americans, stood in 1815 as the great unifying symbol of the nation. (Peter Kenny, “Going for the Gold: Two French Ormolu Washington Clocks at Classical American Homes Preservation Trust,” http://classicalamericanhomes.org/going-for-gold, accessed 10 July 2016).
Dubuc’s 1815 letter further reveals enticing information about the design process. The letter refers to “the mantle clocks, with the statue of Washington, which we had the honor to plan when you were here,” indicating that the Baltimore gentleman had visited Paris and played an active role in the design. As the letter discusses the actual likeness of Washington separately later on, it appears that the Baltimorean was principally engaged in the design of the other decorative devices. Comprising paterae, anthemia, torches, laurel wreaths, trophies, feathered headdresses and eagles, these devices combine motifs from Antiquity with those that refer to America. While these devices were among the repertoire of craftsmen working throughout America in the Neoclassical style, they were particularly favored in Baltimore by furniture makers John and Hugh Finlay. Interestingly, Hugh Finlay travelled to Paris in 1810 and his travels reveal some of the close ties between artisans in Paris and Baltimore (Gregory R. Weidman and Jennifer F. Goldsborough, Classical Maryland 1815-1845 (Baltimore, 1993), p. 99).
Dubuc proudly states that the figural representation of Washington is “a good likeness” “as no pains and expense were spared searching the Louvre, the galleries and hotels, which abound with efforts to perpetuate his memorable person.” Among these sources were undoubtedly prints of the works of artists John Trumbull and Edward Savage. All surviving clocks in this group feature a figure based on Trumbull’s 1792 painting, George Washington at Trenton, which was reproduced by British engraver Thomas Cheeseman in 1796. However, two different likenesses were used to portray Washington’s head: The first, as seen on the clock offered here, was derived from Trumbull’s 1780 painting, which was engraved by Valentine Green in 1781 and 1783 and the second was based upon Savage’s 1789 portrait of a slightly older Washington (Jonathan Snellenburg, “George Washington in Bronze: A Survey of the Memorial Clocks,” Antiques & Fine Art (2001), accessed online).
Entitled “French Ingenuity,” an excerpt of Dubuc’s letter was printed in advertisements for these clocks in newspapers in Philadelphia, Charleston and Raleigh in 1815 and in the same year, clocks with “a large figure of Washington” were advertised in New York (Pascali and Kenny, op. cit.). Approximately thirty examples of these clocks are known today and in addition to displaying two variations on the likeness of Washington, were made in large and small sizes. Standing over 19 in. tall, the example offered here is the larger of the two, the one that Dubuc notes in his letter would have cost between 300 and 320 francs as opposed to the price of 220 to 250 francs for the 15 in. high model. Like almost all of the larger versions, the frieze of the base of the clock offered here features a figural mount described variously as depicting Washington or the Roman soldier Cincinnatus relinquishing his sword (Snellenburg, op. cit.).
This clock is distinguished by its long history in the Woodside family of Baltimore. Very few of the approximately thirty known examples of these clocks have survived with histories of ownership and it is interesting that this clock’s earliest known owner lived in Baltimore, the home of the recipient of Dubuc’s 1815 letter cited above. As recorded by Rachel (Woodside) Benedict in 1953, this clock was among the possessions of her grandfather Dr. William Sheppard Woodside (1799-1859) (Letter, Rachel Benedict to her daughter Junia, 2 March 1953, p. 7, family documents). Woodside was born in Ireland and in about 1820 immigrated to Baltimore where he married Rachel P. Beatty (1804-1885) in 1821. As Woodside arrived in America at a young age and several years after these clocks were made, it is unlikely though not impossible that he was the first owner. If he did not purchase this clock directly from a local retailer, he may have received it from his wife’s family, who lived in Baltimore but about which little else is known, or otherwise acquired it during his successful forty-year career in the city. As Master of Transportation for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Woodside was a powerful and influential member of the Baltimore community. The city directories indicate that he was also a dry goods merchant and lived in the city center at 36 Conway Street. Published in the Federal Gazette, his funeral was held at the Twelfth Presbyterian Church and he was buried in the city’s Green Mount Cemetery.
According to his granddaughter, the clock passed from Woodside to his son, James S. Woodside (1834-1917) and thence to James’ sole heir and younger brother, Harry M. Woodside (1846-after 1930). Like their father, James and Harry were well-known Baltimore merchants; James lived his entire life in Baltimore where he died at his home at 1020 St. Paul Street while Harry lived in his hometown until at least 1920 and later moved to Norfolk, Virginia where he is last recorded in the US Federal Census in 1930. He may have moved in about 1925 as family documents indicate that the clock, along with other treasured family heirlooms, were shipped at this time from Baltimore to Parkdale, Oregon, the home of Harry’s daughter and the recorder of the clock’s early history, Rachel (Woodside) Benedict (1875-1955). Its subsequent history is well documented in family papers, which reveal the exact dates on which the clock was passed to the following two generations. Never out of the family since at least the mid-nineteenth century, the clock is being offered at auction by Dr. William Sheppard Woodside’s great-great grandson.