A tour-de-force of colonial American clockmaking, this tall-case clock exhibits the highest caliber of Newport craftsmanship and pedigree. The dial is signed by James Wady (d. 1759) and its works illustrate the characteristic sophistication of this maker. In addition to timekeeping and hour striking with silent/strike option, the mechanism also measures the date, progress of the moon, seconds, and a feature favored in Newport, the tides. These works are complemented by a particularly elaborate silvered dial with accomplished engraved, painted and cast brass ornament. Only eight other clocks with dials signed by Wady are known, five of which display a similar dial arrangement, a layout that is closely related to the work of William Claggett (1694-1749), Wady’s presumed master.
Based on the wood use and style of the case discussed below, an approximate chronological sequence of the known Wady clocks can be surmised with the clock offered here being Wady’s last-known or penultimate creation. The lack of a moonphase dial and/or the use of mixed capitals in script for the clockmaker’s name are details seen on the earliest five examples, while the moonphase dial and use of all capitals are seen together in the later four. Furthermore, the clock offered here and one other are the only examples with the seconds dial marked in tens (rather than fives) and engraved scrolls (rather than scrolls headed by an eagle) underneath the signature in the arch. As these clocks are also the only two with cases with convex shells, these details suggest an evolution of practices and indicate that these two clocks post-date the other seven examples. For more on Wady, see Martha H. Willoughby, biographies, Timeless: Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks (New York, 2009), pp. 356-357).
As discussed by Patricia E. Kane, convex block-and-shell ornament was introduced after the concave equivalent and this clock is one of approximately thirty six known with convex block-and-shell embellishment that pre-date the Revolution (Patricia E. Kane et al., Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 (New Haven, Connecticut, 2016), pp. 101-102). The quality of the shell carving suggests the output of one of Newport’s leading mid-eighteenth century cabinetmakers and may illustrate the work of one of the first generation or early second-generation Townsend and Goddard shops. Unusual details include the petal-carved keystone in the entablature and the two-tiered petal carving on the central finial. Related two-tiered petal carving is seen in the keystone of the entablature of a clock with a dial signed by William Claggett now at Colonial Williamsburg. Both clock cases also have convex carved shells and it is conceivable that the cabinetmaker responsible for the Claggett clock maintained ties with his protégé and also made the case on the clock offered here (for the Claggett clock, see RIF184).
The other eight clocks with dials signed by Wady in proposed approximate chronological order are: Two walnut plain case clocks in a private collection and the Newport Historical Society (RIF 1359, RIF5375), two mahogany plain case clocks in a private collection and the Preservation Society of Newport County (RIF4527 and RIF4611), three with concave blocking and shells, two of which have a two-tiered cornice, at Winterthur Museum and two private collections (RIF2303, RIF227 (figs. 2, 3) and RIF2299), and the eighth example with convex blocking in a private collection (RIF2161).
THE HUNTER FAMILY OF NEWPORT
Known to have been owned by Thomas Dunn (1834-1916) and Kate Hunter (1849-1930) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this clock may have been made for one of their ancestors. If it descended directly in the family, the most likely first owner was Dr. William Hunter (c.1730-1777) (fig. 4), Kate Hunter’s great-grandfather. Born and trained in Scotland, Dr. Hunter arrived in Newport in about 1752 with “a valuable library,” some of which today is in the collection of Brown University, and a notable collection of instruments. He ran a successful medical practice and apothecary shop in Newport, which was interrupted by his military service as physician and surgeon of troops in the colony of Rhode Island during several campaigns in the French-Indian War. During his first ten years in Newport, at the time this clock would have been made, he lived in the “old Rodman House,” which was then on the corner of Ann (now Touro) and Thames Street before moving to a house on the corner of Mary and Thames Streets (both houses have since been moved to Bridge Street). An ardent Loyalist, Hunter was banished to Smithfield, Rhode Island upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He returned when the British took the city in December 1776, but died from a fever soon thereafter (E. B. Krumbhaar “Dr. William Hunter of Newport,” Annals of Surgery, vol. 101 (1935), pp. 506-528).
In 1769, his portrait and that of his wife and daughter were painted by Cosmo Alexander (figs. 4, 5) and Hunter is famous for encouraging the artistic talents of Alexander’s pupil, the young Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). Around the same time, Stuart painted Dr. Hunter’s spaniels lying under an elaborate tea table of distinctive Newport design, indicating that Hunter had both the means and inclination to furnish his home with the highest quality of local cabinetmaking (fig. 1) (Krumbhaar, p. 523). Furthermore, an open-talon dressing table that descended in the Hunter family and now at Winterthur Museum displays a carved shell akin to that on the case of this clock (fig. 6). Though concave rather than convex, it is set within a semi-circular cut-out, has eleven lobes without fillets and its center is left unembellished. While the clock case and dressing table may have not been made by the same craftsman, both may have complemented each other in Hunter’s homes. It is also possible that the clock was made for Hunter’s father-in-law, Colonel Godfrey Malbone (1694-1768) and inherited by Hunter’s wife, Deborah (1744-1813), but in his fifties at the time the clock was made, Malbone stands as a less likely candidate for purchasing such a fashionable item. The only other direct ancestors of Thomas Dunn and Kate Hunter possibly living in Newport in the 1750s are the family of Thomas’ mother, née Elizabeth Robinson Potter, but the line cannot be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century.
In 1805, Dr. William and Deborah Hunter’s son, Senator William Hunter (1774-1849) acquired the Hunter House (fig. 7), one of the most magnificent examples of Georgian architecture from colonial America (Daniel R. Porter, The Hunter House: Mansion of Hospitality (Newport, 1976), p. 9). Named after his ownership, the Hunter House stands today at 54 Washington Street in Newport’s Easton Point and its purchase in the 1940s led to the formation of the Preservation Society of Newport County under whose auspices it operates as a house museum today. Cosmo Alexander’s portraits of Senator William’s parents in figs. 4 and 5 currently furnish the house and it is possible that this clock along with the dressing table also stood in the house while it was occupied by the Hunter family from the early nineteenth century to the 1860s.
If the clock passed down these lines, it would have been inherited by Senator William’s son, Captain Charles Hunter (1813-1873) before becoming the possession of Charles’ daughter, Kate Hunter who in 1873 married Thomas Dunn. The couple had houses in Holderness, New Hampshire, and Katonah, New York, but the clock is thought to have stood in their primary residence in Newport (for more on the Hunter family, see Norma L. Wark, [Guide to] New England Women and Their Families, Series B: Manuscript Collections from the Newport Historical Society, Ellen K. Rothman, ed. (2009), p. x). Kate Hunter Dunn outlived her husband and died in 1930 at her home in Katonah. The majority of her estate including the clock offered here was inherited by her daughter Anna Caroline Rotch Dunn (1879-1959). She never married and her estate was divided among various family members, including her cousins in the Bennett family who inherited this clock and whose direct descendants were the last family owners at the time of the clock’s sale at auction in 2000.