Photos courtesy Quinn & Farmer.
by Walter C. Newman
When I spoke with Ken Farmer at the final cataloged antiques and collectibles auction at his Radford, Virginia, facility in October 2012, he reminded me to make plans to attend the November 3, 2012, inaugural catalog sale of the newly formed Quinn & Farmer Auctions in Charlottesville, Virginia. He added, "We've got a really nice clock that should generate quite a bit of interest."
That understatement referred to an elaborately decorated tall-case Virginia clock, circa 1810. In order to differentiate it from other clocks of particular significance, this example has become known as the "John Cole" clock.
Reduced to its basics, the John Cole clock is very much like other tall-case clocks. It displays the three parts that one would expect. At the top is the hood or bonnet that houses the clockworks and dial with a decorative tympanum above; there is a tall and narrow central waist section with a proportionately tall and narrow door; and at the bottom is a footed base section. The clock is constructed of cherry with tulip poplar as its secondary wood. All of the exposed surfaces are fully enveloped in mahogany veneers. The clock is monumental in size at 105" tall x 24" wide x 14" deep.
What is unexpected and separates this clock from most others is the manner and degree to which the case is decorated. The case displays very little surface area without some form of inlay, marquetry, parquetry, or other decorative embellishment. The turnings and the detail of the wood treatments are exceptional.
The tympanum features inward-arching molded gooseneck elements that terminate in carved rosettes. A single central urn-form finial rises and features three pendulous pears projecting from it on curved stems. Below the finial is a large bull's-eye decoration flanked by cutouts that resemble the "f" holes of a violin. Those cutouts are each decorated with a three-dimensional elongated diamond, carved from bone and mounted within the openwork void. Below is a ribbon of inlaid egg-and-dart banding that punctuates the transition to the bonnet case.
The front of the bonnet case features two inward-canted oval floral design marquetry medallions in the upper corners. There are four turned and carved vasiform columns, and a tombstone-shape door covers the painted steel multifunction moon phase dial. The sides of the bonnet case feature openwork sound apertures that are carved in the form of vines and flowers.
The upper edge of the waist section features a checkered-pattern inlaid parquetry band just below the bonnet base. The forward edges of the waist case are chamfered and inlaid with leaf and vine decoration their entire length. The waist door features a large central oval marquetry medallion in the form of a tulip in a pot and inscribed with the initials "TC."
The edges of the base section are also chamfered and inlaid with leaf and vine images. There is also a central marquetry medallion in the form of a shell or an inverted pine cone. The clock stands on exaggerated splayed feet with oval pads. The skirt features a central drop pendant inlaid with an overlapping leaf design.
The entire clock then rests on a separate subbase that is raised on turned ball feet. The subbase is of the period but may not be original to the clock. The clock displays a rich old finish that has been cleaned. There have been repairs to the inlay and the veneer. The pear finial is a faithful re-creation.
The clock was estimated at $150,000/250,000. Bidding opened at $100,000 and moved quickly upward on the strength of telephone and absentee bidding. As the stakes increased, an individual in the room entered the contest. Finally, the bidding narrowed to one of the telephone bidders and the individual at the rear of the gallery. Heads snapped back and forth in time with the bidding until the hammer ultimately fell in favor of the in-house bidder. The clock sold for $271,400 (including buyer's premium), a new record for a southern clock.
The winning bidder was a private Virginia collector who asked to remain anonymous. He was assisted during the bidding process by Wallace B. Gusler, the former director of conservation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Gusler is the author of Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710-1790and is given a great deal of credit for broadening the scope of scholarship that surrounds today's study of furniture from the South.
While the John Cole clock is from neither Williamsburg nor eastern Virginia, it is a significant piece of the material culture of Virginia and the South. It is one of a small group of clocks that have been identified as probably coming from Montgomery (now Pulaski) or Washington County in the southwestern corner of Virginia.
Research is ongoing, but it is likely that the John Cole clock is the work of Peter Whipple and Peter Rife. Whipple, a clockmaker, and Rife, a cabinetmaker, are identified as the makers of a remarkably similar tall-case clock called the "Sebastian Wygal" clock. That clock is now part of the permanent collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and is featured in Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown, where the authors refer to it as "one of the most remarkable tall-case clocks known." Although not an identical twin, the John Cole clock is almost certainly the brother of the Sebastian Wygal clock.
When the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired the Sebastian Wygal clock in 1996 for $209,000, it was then a record price for any southern clock. Ten years later, that record was broken at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, when a tall-case clock from South Carolina with a Masonic theme sold for $218,500. Now the John Cole clock has brought the record back into the court of Whipple and Rife.
It is fitting that the Sebastian Wygal clock and the John Cole clock were sold in what is essentially the same Charlottesville salesroom. In 1996 Vernon Powell held the hammer when the Sebastian Wygal clock was sold. His firm, Harlowe-Powell Auction Gallery, was the predecessor of Quinn & Farmer Auctions.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2012 Maine Antique Digest