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French Empire Mantel Clock

This early 19th century clock, based on a model by Jean Andre-Reiche (1752-1817), is a charming example of French Empire style and craftsmanship. During the Empire Period (1804-1814), design elements were drawn from classical models, such as the Greek-derived klismos chair, the oil lamp, and the high-waisted dress worn by the sitter. The dog seated behind the woman is most likely a pug, a popular breed in France at the time and the beloved dog of the Empress Josephine.

French, Early 19th century
Ormolu, marble
5 1/2 x 12 5/8 x 11 5/8 inches (14 x 32.1 x 29.5 cm)
Gift of Miss Anna Shaw, 1939
The various elements of the clock were each cast separately and are joined with threaded rods. The elements consist of ormolu or fire gilded components, and patinated brass.

The clock dial, most likely a replacement, consists of several parts (the chapter ring, matted disc, and back plates), which are pinned together. The chapter ring features engraved Roman numerals. Many clocks throughout history have a “silvered” chapter ring which consists of a layer of silver over a copper alloy surface. In this instance, however, the chapter ring was not silvered: the majority of French Empire clocks of the same style as this clock have a white enameled dial or a completely gold dial, and scientific analysis revealed that the chapter ring contains a high gold content. It is therefore unlikely that this component was originally silvered: there would be little reason to silver a component composed mainly of gold or one that is gold plated.

The process of fire gilding involves the application of a gold and mercury amalgam to a cleaned copper or silver alloy surface. The surface is heated until most of the mercury volatilizes, leaving a metallically bonded gold layer. Fire gilding was very popular in France in the 18th century and early 19th century where it was valued for its appearance and durability.

In manufacture, the ormolu surfaces have fine pin holes, which allowed corrosion from the brass substrate to come through. The surfaces were disfigured by this dark, spotty corrosion as well as old polish residue from past cleanings. Many of the threaded iron rods joining the components were rusted and several elements were loose. The clock required an overall cleaning and tightening of joined elements.

The clock was disassembled into its many parts. The metal components of the body of the clock were cleaned with a dilute detergent, solvents, and a dilute formic acid solution. Abrasive cleaning was not selected because it wears away the soft gold layer. Testing of all materials was performed before treatment to ensure there were no negative reactions.

An old repair was discovered on the bottom of the oil lamp component. The repair had left disfiguring solder residue on the surface. This was mechanically removed as close to the surface as possible. The surface still appeared silver in color, however, so a small amount of gold leaf was applied and coated to bring back the yellow tone.

After treatment, the clock has returned to its original bright and handsome appearance.