Time Travelers

Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

The Speed Art Museum’s “timely” new exhibit

By Laura Ross

The Speed Art Museum is taking time out of its 2019 exhibition season to focus on the art of Kentucky with a first-of-its-kind exhibit devoted to early Kentucky tall case, or “grandfather,” clocks. “Making Time: The Art of the Kentucky Tall Case Clock, 1790–1850,” featuring 27 spectacular tall case clocks crafted in Kentucky, opened in February at the Speed and will be on display until mid-June.

“Fine Kentucky tall clocks survive in some numbers,” said Scott Erbes, the Speed’s curator of decorative arts and design. “They represent the most lavish examples of timekeepers from the era and the interconnected threads of history, craft, taste and technology that come together with tall case clocks.”

Photo provided by Speed Art Museum.

The consistency and history of marking time appealed to Erbes, who along with collaborators and independent researchers Clifton Anderson, Greg Black, Bob Burton and Mack Cox, painstakingly prepared the exhibition over the past two years.

“Like a luxury car, they combined pragmatism, luxury and status,” he said. “They also often had second lives as memorial devices for remembering lives and events of the past, which is particularly true of clocks that have descended for generations within the same family.”

Most of the clocks come from family and private collections and have rarely, if ever, been shared with the public. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated scholarly catalog that presents significant new research on early Kentucky cabinetmaking and the state’s watch and clock trade.

“I am always amazed by the generosity of Kentucky collectors and families when it comes to sharing their precious, fragile treasures,” said Erbes. “All who we approached gladly lent clocks to the exhibition.”

When shown side-by-side, the clocks reveal the expert hands of many Kentucky artisans and illustrate the hidden world of gears, bells, weights and pendulums that kept the clocks running and chiming. 

The extraordinarily talented Kentucky cabinet makers were both Kentucky natives and immigrants. They transformed local woods like cherry and walnut into intricately inlaid cabinets with delicately designed carvings and rich veneers. Kentucky silversmiths are often credited with the intricate movements housed within the various clocks.

Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Some of the artisans were slave owners, and Erbes believes some of the slaves both directly and indirectly contributed to the creations of the some of the clocks. Tall clocks were a big business during the time and contributed to Kentucky’s economy.

“Many clocks incorporate imported English components, illustrating patterns of trade, and all reflect the complexity of timekeeping technologies,” Erbes said. “We often hear about advanced manufacturing and issues of labor today. These same factors were at play in early Kentucky.”

Erbes urges visitors to take their time in the exhibition and let the artistry soak in. “These objects are so rich in visual detail, from their wooden cases to their painted dials, that they do require slow looking,” he explained. “They are beautiful examples of cabinetmaking and examples of technological history. For me, the most remarkable thing is that one of these clocks, when running and striking, lets us hear exactly what timekeeping sounded like hundreds of years ago. They are, pardon the pun, like time machines.”

Scott Erbes.

Erbes is proud to showcase two clocks associated with the famed Lexington silversmith and merchant Asa Blanchard (about 1770–1838). Along with their handsome cases, the two clocks also illustrate Lexington’s trade connections with Philadelphia, which acted as a source for imported English luxury goods like painted clock dials. “Making Time” also features clocks from Kentucky’s two Shaker communities, with one piece each from Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and South Union in Logan County.

“Another highlight is a towering clock that combines a Lexington-made case with a German musical movement dated 1826,” said Erbes. “The musical movement kept the time, struck the hour and could also play eight different dance tunes using a complex mechanism like a music box. It turned the clock into an entertainment device as well as a timekeeper. Visitors can hear a recording of one of its songs when they see the exhibition.”

Daniel Spencer Clock [46]

Each tall case grandfather clock has a backstory unique to its design and the family that has cared for it over the decades. Erbes, who is a natural storyteller, revels in the minute details and will happily share those stories multiple times throughout the exhibition.

Erbes will offer tours and tales from the exhibition at 2 p.m. on March 24, April 14, May 19 and June 2, all of which are Sundays. A lecture symposium will also be held at the Speed the morning of May 18. The exhibition, located in the Speed’s Kentucky gallery, is free for members and free with the cost of admission for non-members.

Time runs out for the exhibition on June 16, when the loaned clocks will return to their private owners. It will be a bittersweet moment for Erbes, who hopes some lenders might be inspired to donate their clocks to the Speed in the future so the public may enjoy their unique beauty.

For Erbes, the clocks are functional friends.

Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

“I’m a constant clock checker,” he laughed. “Most of my timekeeping comes by way of glowing screens in today’s world, but I do have an analog electric clock in my office.”

But when he wants to escape to a different time, he wanders into the Kentucky gallery he watches over. “You can listen to the three clocks in the exhibition that are kept running. Their rhythmic ticking is quite soothing.”

All in good time, all in good time. V

For more information on “Making Time: The Art of the Kentucky Tall Case Clock, 1790-1850,” as well as current exhibitions on view at the Speed Art Museum, visit speedmuseum.org.