This sumptuous clock, veneered with tortoiseshell on a red background inlaid with figures of mother-of-pearl, brass and horn, mounted in silver and gilt-bronze, and set with porcelain columns and an enamelled portrait medallion, is a quintessential example of a so-called Prunkuhr, a large and elaborate timepiece made for show. Such clocks were a speciality of Augsburg from about 1695 onwards.
The Augsburg Prunkuhren
Typical of the late 17th and early 18th Century Augsburg Prunkuhren is their stepped, pyramidal form, reminiscent of tabernacles or altars. A famous early pair of such clocks was made in the 1690s, probably for Max Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria; it is now divided among the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Residenz in Munich (L. Seelig, exh. cat. Silber und Gold, Augsburger Goldschmiedekunst für die Höfe Europas, Munich (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum) 1994, vol. II, cat.no.93; cf. K. Maurice, Die deutsche Räderuhr, Munich 1976, vol.I, pp.188-190, figs.52-54 and pl.VIII; vol.II, figs.704-720). Many artists collaborated on these two enormous pieces, but the silver reliefs are attributed to the well-known Johann Andreas Thelott (1655-1734) whose name is habitually linked to the elaborate silver mounts on altar-clocks (see W. Rieder, 'An eighteenth-century Augsburg cabinet', The Burlington Magazine 112 (1970), pp.33-37). Thelott specialised in intricate figurative reliefs. On the present clock most of the mounts are purely ornamental, with the exception of the two pairs of reclining putti. They mainly consist of strapwork (Bandwerk) and, although somewhat influenced by Thelott's style, do not betray his hand. Moreover, the clock was made towards the very end of Thelott's life.
The Silberkistler of Augsburg
It would not have been the silversmith, but the cabinet-maker involved in the production of this clock who would have been responsible for its design and for the coordination of the various craftsmen's work. There was a long tradition in Augsburg of creating silver-mounted furniture, or occasionally furniture entirely covered in silver, and those cabinet-makers who specialized in such work were specifically known as Silberkistler. In his Kunst-, Gewerbe- und Handwerksgeschichte der Reichsstadt Augsburg of 1779, the historian Paul von Stetten describes the work of some of those who worked around 1700. Of Heinrich Eichler (1637-1719) and Christoph Ellrich (1648-1709) he describes Schränke, Schreib- und andere Tische, Spiegelrahmen decorated with mother-of-pearl, stones and glass, as well as clocks and an Orgelwerk, das mit vielen Säulen, Gold, Silber, Schildkroten und Gemälden ausgezieret gewesen, daran nebst dem Erfinder Eichler die besten Silberarbeiter gearbeitet haben (see Dieter Alfter, Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschranks, Augsburg 1986, p.93). The present clock was made after the death of both Eichler and Ellrich, but it clearly stands in the tradition of their work. The Silberkistler involved may conceivably have been Eichler's pupil and son-in-law, Johannes Mann (1679-1754). In organising the creation of this clock, he would have especially ordered the porcelain columns from the factory at Meissen, in the same way that Parisian marchands-merciers would later commission from Sèvres plaques to be mounted on furniture, clocks and other works of art.
One of the cabinet-maker's own most striking contributions to the clock is the inlay in mother-of-pearl, horn laid on coloured backgrounds, and brass, of small chinoiserie vignettes and busts of deities and allegorical figures. Typical of Augsburg, similar marquetry is found on a table and two candlestands from the collection of the Earls of Malmesbury, now in the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe (R. Stratmann, 'Eine Garnitur Augsburger Prunkmöbel des frühen 18. Jahrhunderts', Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg 12 (1975), pp.157-170), on a comparable set at Waddesdon Manor, previously in the Demidoff collection (G. de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor, Furniture, Clocks and Gilt Bronzes, Fribourg 1974, nos.114 and 115), and on a table at Pommersfelden (H. Kreisel, Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels, vol.II, Spätbarock und Rokoko, Munich 1970, figs.315-316). In addition, closely related figures on a slightly larger scale occur on a set of panels probably also originally from Pommersfelden, sold Sotheby's London, 14 June 1996, lot 14. Only one other clock with comparable marquetry is known, in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (Maurice, figs. 723-724). The exotic figures that are a feature of all these pieces, were partly based on illustrations from the 17th Century descriptions of travels to China by Joan Nieuhof and others, some of which were plagiarized by the printmaker Paul Decker who worked in Augsburg during the early 18th Century.
According to von Stetten, the aforementioned Johannes Mann made Schreibtische, Kabinette, Spiegel von sehr schöner Architektur, die mit Bernstein, Lapis Lazuli, Schildkrot-Platten auch mit Säulen von Amethist und dergleichen Steinen besetzt waren and he specifically mentions a set consisting of a mirror, a table and two candlestands (Stratmann, p.164). Clearly, Mann's work was of comparable richness to the present clock.
A mystery abbess
Sadly, it is unknown for whom this extraordinary piece was made. We probably know what the owner looked like, because there can be no doubt that the enamel portrait on top of the piece represents its original owner. Dressed in black and wearing a large cross, this lady must be an abbess; the princely crown above the medallion denotes her high rank, but there are unfortunately no arms providing a clue as to her identity.