April 26, 2023

“Striking Beauty” Clock Exhibition Is First Such Display of its Kind

TELLING TIME: More than 50 tall case clocks, some with intricate designs, are on display at Morven through February. All were made by New Jersey craftspeople between 1730 and 1830.

By Anne Levin

For the more than 140 people who attended the opening of “Striking Beauty: New Jersey Tall Case Clocks, 1730-1830” at Morven Museum and Garden last Thursday, it was the height of the 52 clocks displayed on platforms in the second-floor gallery that made the biggest impression.

“They’re so tall! That’s what everybody kept saying,” said curator Elizabeth Allan, who has assembled the collection of works by highly skilled New Jersey clockmakers, running through February 18, 2024. “And it’s true. When you see them in person, you really can’t believe how tall they are.”

Allan and colleagues were hoping to find 30 clocks when they began organizing the exhibit. Much to their pleasant surprise, they ended up with 52. While smaller shows on the subject have been mounted, the Morven display turns out to be the largest of its kind. Many of the clocks have never been on public view before, and will return to private collections after the run of the show.

“Striking Beauty” follows the lead of a Morven exhibit from nine years ago, focused on needlework from across the state. “We have a spreadsheet of ideas,” said Allan. “Some of those ideas stay on the spreadsheet for a couple years. Then, something will happen that makes them bubble up to the top. We always liked the idea of examining things made in New Jersey, as we did with the needlework exhibit.”

During a visit to Ellarslie museum in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park, Allan was taken with a clock on display. “I mentioned that I was thinking of doing a show on clocks from New Jersey, and they said, ‘Oh, we know who you should talk to.’ That’s how we met Steve.”

Steve is Steve Petrucelli, an expert on New Jersey clocks and the exhibition advisor. “We met over the phone, because it was during COVID,” said Allan. “We asked if a show had ever been done on this scale, and he said it hadn’t. We also asked if it was doable. I mean, how do you move clocks? He said ‘It’s fine, we can totally do it. I’ll show you how.’”

Having the clocks taken apart and reassembled was easier than Allan expected. “Steve works with people accustomed to moving clocks,” she said.

Allan and colleagues went to historical societies across the state to search out examples, and several have lent their clocks for the show. Another comes from the Newark Museum; still more are from private homes. “Having those from private homes is especially exciting, because you wouldn’t get to see them otherwise,” said Allan.

“‘Striking Beauty’ examines the highly skilled work of New Jersey clockmakers as they collaborated with cabinetmakers, ran shops, and formed professional partnerships to create stunning, technologically advanced timekeeping pieces,” reads a press release on the show. “These freestanding pendulum clocks are as functional as they are beautiful, with faces embellished with intricate brass work or painted designs of objects like ships, suns, and moons. Internally, their complicated workings are mechanical masterpieces; some even chime the hour with melodies.”

The clocks are works of decorative art that are also machines. More than two centuries after they were built, many — 80 percent of those on display — still work and operate.

The exhibition begins in Burlington County, in a time period when war was raging. “These are clockmakers who are British subjects who then became revolutionaries and ended their lives as U.S. citizens,” said Allan. “There are such amazing stories to tell.”

The earliest clock in the show was made by Isaac Pearson, considered to be New Jersey’s first clockmaker. Another, by Flemington clockmaker Joakim Hill, was transported from Maine. In an 1804 newspaper advertisement, Trenton clock and watchmaker William J. Leslie wrote “Not from Paris, London, or Boston — but a Native of New Jersey.” The state was, at that time, home to dozens of craftsmen specializing in tall case clocks. Those in the show come from towns including Elizabeth, Newark, Burlington, Flemington, and Salem, among other locales.

Upcoming programming related to “Striking Beauty” includes “Perspectives in Identifying New Jersey Clocks,” led by Petrucelli on Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m.; and “The Costs of Luxury: Mahogany and Tall Case Clocks in Early America,” led by historian Jennifer Anderson on Wednesday, May 24 at 6:30 p.m. Both programs are hybrids.

Visit morven.org for tickets, times, and information. Morven is located at 55 Stockton Street.