Illustrating one of the earliest American contributions to clockmaking, the thirty-hour wall clocks made by brothers Simon and Aaron Willard stand as among the rarest clocks to survive from eighteenth-century America. The ingenious design, simulating a bracket clock atop a shelf, allows for a pendulum and weight-driven movement, and thus required far fewer parts than a spring-mechanism, the device required in a standard bracket clock. The first of Simon Willard's many inventions, the vast majority of the less than three dozen surviving today bear dials signed by Simon and, aside from this example, only five others by Aaron are known. These comprise four in the collections of Winterthur Museum, Historic Deerfield (fig. 1), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Old Sturbridge Village (see Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York, 1966), cat. 155, pp. 202-203; Dean A. Fales, Jr., The Furniture of Historic Deerfield (New York, 1976), no. 522, p. 268; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), cat. 200, pp. 309-310; Herschel B. Burt, Eighteenth Century Thirty-Hour Willard Clocks 1770-1790 (Grafton, MA, 1997), pp. 1, 18-21, pls. 9, 10). A fifth example recently sold in these Rooms, Property from the Collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, January 21, 2006, lot 531.
Frequently referred to as "the thirty-hour Grafton clock," the form has long been associated with the Willards during their years in Grafton, prior to their removal to Roxbury in the early 1780s. Supporting this contention, several examples are engraved Grafton, while none are similarly marked Roxbury. Born in Grafton, located thirty-five miles west of Boston, Aaron Willard most likely trained in the shop established by his eldest brother Benjamin on the family homestead in 1766. Upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, both Aaron and Simon enlisted and marched to Roxbury where they served during the siege of Boston. They were included in the Roxbury tax list in 1783, but may have moved to the town as early as 1780. Recent scholarship has revised the notion that all these clocks were made in Grafton and it is now believed many were made in the 1780s while the Willard brothers were working in Roxbury. See Paul J. Foley, Willard's Patent Time Pieces: A History of the Weight-Driven Banjo Clock, 1800-1900 (Norwell, MA, 2002), p. 2; Burt, pp. 18, 20.
Rarely do these clocks survive without losses or restorations. Like most others today, the example offered here has a replaced fret. The original was missing at the time it was acquired by Henry Francis du Pont and its first replacement, which accompanies the sale of this clock, followed the design of Winterthur's other wall clock signed by Aaron Willard. Based on shadow evidence, another, smaller fret was created using the template of the example at Historic Deerfield and is now the model currently on display. The oculus in the base is also a later addition. No other wall clocks of the same form display this feature and a close examination of its execution reveals a slightly cruder hand that contrasts with the refined workmanship of the rest of the case. With a crack running through the center, it is possible that a knot or other wood deformity created a loss that was masked by the oculus. The works survive in remarkable condition and unlike many others retain the original bell, along with the bell stand and nut, strike and hour and minute hands.