Wallace Clocks: Allegory and Attribution
Venus and Cupid
What Do They Mean?
Among its display of timepieces at the Wallace Collection, (Manchester Square, London) is an extraordinary clock designed by Charles Boulle. This particular clock is embellished with the figure of Venus emerging from a seashel and accompanied by Cupid. It is made of oak and veneered with turtleshell, ebony and rosewood. The mounts are of brass and gilt-bronze. The actual clock parts were made by clockmaker Jean Jolly. In addition to the drama enacted by Cupid and Venus, other putti “fly” around the dial. The hands of the clock are as decorative as the piece itself, fashioned to look like fleur-de-lys flowers.
Why put Venus and Cupid on a clock? The 1600s saw advances in horology that led to the dial clock, as we know it today. Clocks became ubiquitous in the homes of the middle and upper classes, evolving into highly ornate and often multifunctional pieces, for example, musical boxes and calendars as well as timepieces. Mantel clocks, which occupied the hearth or “heart” of the middle-class home, were often created with classical allegories to draw attention to married love, the virtues and the graces. By placing these allegories at the centre of their homes, the occupants were most likely recalling the ancient Roman custom of the Penates, household deities invoked during domestic rituals such as feasting. The Penates were statues of Roman deities kept on a table or altar within the house. The arrangement usually comprised of Venus (love), Minerva (wisdom), Mercury (health), Vesta (goddess of the hearth) the Lares (male household gods), the Genii and others
We identify Cupid with Eros, the son of Ares and Aphrodite, the personification of erotic love. He was a fundamental world force, ensuring the continuity of the species. Eros married Psyche, a woman who was to suffer many trials at the hands of her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, aka Venus. Under the influence of poets like Cicero, Eros gradually evolved from a well-formed youth into the chubby, often winged, young boy or infant Cupid. He is still with us today, appearing on Valentine cards and wounding hapless lovers with his arrows. Another allegorical timepiece in the Wallace collection is the pretty little mantel clock ascribed to Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-91), with clock parts by Jean-André Lepaute (1720-1789). Made of gilt bronze, it has been adorned with figures of Venus and Cupid and embellished with vine leaves.
In parallel with the emerging middle class, the 1600s saw the monarchy change for ever. The cult of the warrior king had given way to the domestic monarch who loved to surround himself with luxurious household objects and Louis XIV of France was such a man. It is no wonder that he became patron of many skilled craftsmen and artists. Amid this plethora of talent was André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), a French cabinetmaker. Initially, he was employed at Versailles as a painter. Then, he turned to cabinet making and produced bureaux and armoires, pedestals and clockcases, all richly decorated with gilt-bronze embellishments that he modelled himself. Boulle was so skilled in marquetry that the name “Boulle” still defines a type of inlay work normally done with brass and tortoise-shell.
Boulle designed a cabinet clock in 1715, clocks often being made with matching pedestals and cabinets. The dial, bearing the brevet “Le Roy a Paris”, is set within an almost square cabinet and has the allegorical figure of Mars seated on top of the clockcase, with Justice and Victory on either side. The allegorical grouping on the cabinet underneath most likely represents the three Graces. The array of materials used in its making is extraordinary and includes oak, ebony, and brass and gilt-bronze. The inlays include turtleshell, fruitwood, pinewood, walnut, birchwood and brass.
Another Boulle clock in the Wallace collection is a “pedestal” clock made between 1715 and 1720. It is embellished with three female figures believed to represent Fame, Prudence and Justice. One figure is seated over the clock face, while the other two figures are seated on either side. The pendulum of the clock is visible through the front of the case, a feature that clockmakers used in order to display their skills, clothed appropriately within the finery of the cabinetmaker’s craft. This “visible pendulum” feature is also evident in a musical mantel clock, attributed to designer Jean-Claude Chambellan Dupleiss the Elder (1694-1774), with the working parts made by Fancois Viger (1708-84). The clock casing is extraordinary; a dog seated on top of the dial being suggestive of fidelity in marriage. The dial is mounted on a base balustered by the foliate ornamentation surrounding the pendulum. The dial bears the brevet “Viger a Paris”.
My final clock is a beautiful spring-driven mantel timepiece, also attributed to Chambellan Dupleiss. Made in 1763, it is embellished with gilt bronze figures of Venus and Cupid. The casing is inlaid with glass and brass and incredibly, restored pink silk. The workings are attributed to Joseph Couteau. At the end of the day, the beauty and craftsmanship of these timepieces has to be seen to be believed.
The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London, is open seven days a week, 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free. All photos in this feature have been used with permission.
The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology edited by Pierre Grimal, 1951