Displaying a rare brass fret and carved ornament of exceptional quality, this tall-case clock is a masterpiece of Newport furniture and stands as an important early example of the convex block-and-shell design.
The pierced fret, with scrolled vines, irregular five-petaled flowers and empty circular termini, is very closely related to that on a clock at Colonial Williamsburg (fig. 1). Not merely a decorative treatment, the fretwork and thin backing mask sounding holes cut into the frame that allow the clock's chime to resonate. Currently, the fret is backed by a thin paper that is most likely a later replacement. Williamsburg's example was found to have traces of old red wool and suggests that this clock may also have been originally fitted with a fabric backing (Barry A. Greenlaw, New England Furniture at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, 1974), p. 83). Supporting a date of production as early as the mid- to late 1740s, the design of the fret is akin to that on several other Newport-made clock cases from the 1740s and 1750s. Variously executed in brass, paper and leather, these frets appear on two other clocks with dials signed by William Claggett (1696-1749) and three with dials signed by Claggett's son-in-law, James Wady (d. 1759) (Clement E. Conger and A. W. Rollins, Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York, 1991), cat. 89, pp. 176-177; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), cat. 190, pp. 294-5; Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 202, Christie's New York, January 18-19, 2002, lot 388 and fig. 2, p. 220).
Additional similarities between this clock and that at Williamsburg indicate that the cases were very likely made in the same shop. The keystone above the arched door is surmounted by a fluted petal-carved block and though not identical, a closely related block is seen on the Williamsburg clock. No other Newport clocks have been found that share this detail and of those that have keystones, the blocks above are simply molded (Christie's New York, January 18-19, 2002, lot 388; Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, NJ, 1984), fig. 8.15, p. 324). Furthermore, both clocks display seemingly identical moldings, stop-fluting with brass mounts and a paneled base with chamfered corners terminating in carved lambs'-tongues. Finally, all the related clocks with pierced frets have a case door with concave blocking and conforming shell; this clock and the Williamsburg example are the only two with convex block-and-shell doors. Cited above, another closely related clock that lacks the pierced fret may also have been made in the same shop (Moses, fig. 8.15, p. 324).
The shell carving on the case door is particularly robust and is distinguished by the treatment at the base of the interior petals. Like shells associated with Edmund Townsend (see lot 593), the petals are underscored by a horizontal bar, but unlike Townsend's examples, the bar is continuous with the arcs defining the two outer petals, creating a flaring cup-shaped element. Within the body of Newport carved shells, this feature is unusual, and when found elsewhere, appears on some of the shells that adorn the celebrated block-and-shell desk-and-bookcases. These include the shells on the lid of the desk at Winterthur (figs. 2, 3) and the concave shell on the lid of one of the desks at the Rhode Island School of Design (Brock Jobe, "The Lisle Desk-and-Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon," American Furniture 2001, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 2001), figs. 7, 15, 41, 42, pp. 124, 131, 144).
Imported from England, the clock's works are elaborate, requiring an oversize backplate with L-shaped extensions and fitted with a large pendulum. The works' makers, William and James Miller of London are recorded as watchmakers working prior to 1762, and, while listed separately, a James Miller is further noted to have worked in 1758 on Lombard Street, the address engraved on the dial of this clock (G.H. Baille, Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World (London, 1947), p. 220). Though there have been adjustments to the case sides, the works are very possibly original and if so, support the notion that this clock was made at a relatively early date.
According to a handwritten note that accompanies the sale, this clock was "probably brought to New Haven by 'Auntie Read,' who was Martha Carde of Newport, where she married Ezra C. Read about 1830." This individual was most likely Martha Card Simpson, daughter of Richard who married Ezra C. Read (1798-after 1870) in 1824 (New York, Marriage Newspaper Extracts, The Barber Collection). Little is known of the Simpson family, but a Richard Simpson of Newport appears in the US Census from 1790 to 1830. As detailed in the US Census from 1850 to 1870, Ezra C. Read resided in New Haven and his wife, "Martha C.," was noted to be born in Rhode Island in 1806. A bank president, Read appears to have had diverse business interests as he is recorded as a merchant in New York City from 1830 to 1840 and later as one of the Directors of the Hartford-New Haven Railroad (New York City Directories, 1829-1830 and 1839-1840; Hartford City Directories, 1842, 1861). From the Read family, the clock was inherited by Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), a prominent linguist and diplomat. Williams accompanied Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853 on his pioneering journey to Japan, later served as the US chargé d'affaires in Bejing and in 1877 became the first Professor of Chinese at Yale University. The clock then passed down in the family to Williams' great-granddaughter, Cynthia Garstin Blackwell from whose estate it was consigned to auction.