This remarkable Regence clock, executed in Paris circa 1730 and exquisitely decorated with cloud and foliate scrolls in Chinese polychrome lacquer, was almost certainly a gift to Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) from the French royal court. Applied with a central seal with the Qianlong incised four-character mark ‘Qianlong Nian Zh' (made in the reign of the Qianlong emperor), it was once part of the fabled Imperial collection of timepieces housed in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Incorporating a fleur-de-lys band and a dial decorated with a globe showing France on one side and China on the other, with a coq emblematic of France atop it, the present clock is a rare example of the earliest diplomatic gifts between France and China.
For European powers of the 17th and 18th centuries China offered the tantalising prospect of great wealth. Rich in tea, spices, silk and porcelain among many other commodities, China produced a plethora of items which were highly prized in Europe for their rarity and novelty. By the mid-17th century, with the gradual expansion of maritime trade, the monarchies of Europe had come to understand the economic benefits of developing good diplomatic relations with the Imperial court at Beijing. In the case of France, it was during the reign of Louis XIV that a real interest in China emerged. Supported by his principal ministers, Colbert and then Louvois, and in conjunction with the Academy of Sciences, the King implemented an extremely proactive diplomatic and scientific policy towards the Imperial power in an attempt to build closer ties with his contemporary, Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722). The French East India Company, created by Colbert in 1664, catalysed the court’s fascination with Chinese imports such as lacquers, fabrics and porcelain, and contributed to the growing influence of Chinese art on French art, especially in royal residences and aristocratic circles. Shortly after, in 1685, the king personally financed the first expedition to China of six French Jesuits disguised as ‘mathematicians’. Admitted to the court of Kangxi in 1688, they gained the Emperor’s favour thanks to their medical and astronomical knowledge; in return Kangxi promulgated an edict granting religious tolerance to Christians in 1692.
It is against this backdrop of growing diplomatic ties and political rapprochement between Paris and Beijing that the present clock should be understood. Clocks, watches and automata had been sent from from Europe to China first as gifts and later as exports from the early 17th century, ever since the early Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) famously used clocks to gain access to the Imperial Court in 1601. The clock trade gained far greater significance during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, who amassed possibly the greatest collection of clocks and watches ever assembled. Almost certainly a diplomatic gift sent from France to the Qianlong Emperor, the clock here offered is closely related to two French bracket clocks of this exact model in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (ill. in L. Yangzhen ed., Timepieces in the Collection of the Palace Museum, Classics of the Forbidden City, p. 40, pl 10). As in the present example, the case of one of the clocks in the Imperial collection is decorated with stylised foliage in polychrome Chinese lacquer, and is similarly inset with an enamel backplate around the dial. The second clock in the Palace Museum however, is plainly veneered and has no surface decoration. It has been suggested, therefore, that these clocks – prized in China for their mechanical ingenuity and European form – may have been sent from France without their typical ‘Boulle’ marquetry decoration in order to allow the Imperial workshops in Beijing to adapt them in the Chinese taste.
The design of the case of the present clock, which consists of an ogee-moulded top mounted with acanthus angle clasps and baluster finials above a glazed arched door with incurved lower corners, canted angles mounted with ormolu herms, and scrolling foliate volute supports, is a well-known model after an engraving by André-Charles Boulle published circa 1720 under the title 'Nouveau desseins...' by Mariette, and produced between the years 1700-1735 (ill. in J.N. Ronfort, André Charles Boulle: A New Style for Europe 1642-1732, Paris, 2012, cat. 87 b, pp. 358-9). A bracket clock of this exact design, executed circa 1731, signed ‘N. Delaunay a Paris’ and entirely inlaid in Boulle marquetry, is in the collection of the Grobet-Labadie Museum, Marseilles (ill. in Tardy, French Clocks, Vol. I, p. 144). Interestingly, a further bracket clock of this exact design, but decorated in red and gilt vernis martin simulating Chinese lacquer is known (ill. in P. Kjellberg, La Pendule Francaise, Editions de l'Amateur, Paris, 1997, p. 69, fig. B), which in addition to demonstrating that this clock type was produced to receive a lacquered surface – as in the present example – also illustrates the deep admiration and reciprocation of design influences between East and West.