Saving Time: Conserving a Cox Clock

There’s a magnificent cabinet clock in the collection of the Walters Art Museum. Until recently, little was known about how the clock and musical mechanism functioned. What type of timepiece was inside? Did it have an alarm or chime? Who made it and when?

Within the Walters Art Museum’s collection of timepieces, clocks, and watches there’s a clock that is said to have belonged to the dowager empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna. Agate panels framed by elaborate rococo cage-work form the body of the clock, which contains a complex musical mechanism.

Conservation staff treated the clock to reduce silver tarnish and reattach some loose elements. This provided an opportunity to investigate the object further. Though it was known that the clock was assembled in a London workshop owned by James Cox, little was known about the timepiece and musical mechanism inside. What type of timepiece is it? What tune does the musical mechanism play? Who made them and when?

A Closer Look at the Clock

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The exterior of this clock is made of dyed agate panels mounted to a heavy frame of copper alloy. The joins among the panels are disguised by ornamental frames of thin gold sheet made by pressing or hammering into molds. On close examination, conservators noticed empty holes at the four corners of the top of the cabinet and saw evidence that the small flame atop the urn finial is a replacement. This suggests some decorative elements may be missing from the top of the clock, such as the jeweled flowers and butterflies on another clock made in Cox’s workshop now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who Made the Timepiece and When?

The cabinet clock was assembled in the middle of the 18th century by a London jeweler and “toymaker” named James Cox, famous for the extravagant clocks and automatons produced in his workshop, sometimes for foreign markets. Cox employed many craftsmen and occasionally purchased components from other workshops, meaning that his creations are often the work of many individuals. The timepiece inside the drum atop the clock was made by James Hagger, probably at an earlier date. The musical mechanisms in Cox’s clocks, including the one in the cabinet base of the Walters clock, are believed to have been made by a man named John Joseph Merlin. Writing in 1773, James Cox described these musical mechanisms as “a most curious chime of bells, playing various tunes.”

What Did it Sound Like?

Conservators x-rayed the cabinet-shaped base of the clock from the front and side to gain a better understanding of the musical mechanism inside. Examining the x-rays closely, conservators could see that the musical mechanism consists of a spring-driven gear train that drives a cylinder fitted with short projecting pins. As the cylinder turns, the pins engage a set of trip hammers that strike eight bells of different tones.

A photograph from 1959, showing the musical mechanism removed from the clock.
A photograph from 1959, showing the musical mechanism removed from the clock.

During examination of the clock, a photograph from a prior treatment in 1959 was discovered in the records of the Conservation Division, showing the musical mechanism removed from the clock. Comparing the photograph with the x-ray, conservators made another discovery: the musical mechanism plays more than one tune.

Based on the x-ray, it seems that the mechanism shows few signs of wear or repair, indicating that it has not been used heavily. It has a spring drive that can be wound up by swinging aside the right-hand pearl and emerald cover on the front of the cabinet and inserting a key. Conservators and registrars searched through storage for a key that might fit the odd-sized winding post, but none were found.

Due to previous repairs and alterations, conservators determined that there was no straightforward way to open the cabinet portion of the clock to inspect the musical mechanism more closely before it was to be installed. While it was not possible to hear the “most curious chime of bells” at this time, curators and conservators may continue to study the clock after the close of the exhibition.

The chimes of a similar clock made in the style of James Cox can be heard here:

What Type of Timepiece is Inside?

To better understand the timepiece inside, conservators x-rayed the drum-shaped top of the clock from the front and side. The timepiece appears to have been made as a pocket watch, and has no connection to the musical movement in the cabinet below. Seeing that the timepiece was in good condition, conservators removed it to examine it more closely.

back of the timepiece
Backplate of the timepiece, signed “Jam.s Hagger” and marked “391 / London”.

The timepiece is marked on the reverse “London” and signed “Jam.s Hagg[e]r” (a hole has been drilled partly through the “e” in “Hagger”). James Hagger was a watchmaker at Grove Hall Lane, London, working in the early part of the 18th century, before James Cox went into business. This suggests that Cox purchased the watch secondhand or perhaps from unsold stock in Hagger’s store.

Threaded holes and recesses on the edge of the face of the timepiece indicate that it was once fitted into a watch case with a hinge and catch. The timepiece has a striking mechanism that chimes the hours on a bell; the pierced back of the drum atop the Cox clock, covered with pink silk, allows the sound of the chime to be heard.

Additional information about the clock with an image download is available along with thousands of other artworks via the Walters Art Museum’s online collections website.