For several decades now, the Museum has been a proud beneficiary of the Ivory family’s generosity, and the tradition continues with this gift from the sons of Joan and the late Neil B. Ivory. It is with joy and intense gratitude that we recently received from these faithful donors a truly outstanding object: a very rare seventeenth-century table clock by the London master clockmaker Joseph Knibb. Renowned for both the range of his output and his inventive genius, Knibb is an iconic figure in the history of British clockmaking and, by extension, of European decorative arts in the modern era.(1)
Born in Claydon, Oxfordshire, in 1640 to a family of clockmakers, Knibb set up his own workshop in Oxford, where he invented the anchor escapement and the Roman striking notation system.(2) These mechanisms, which enabled clocks to keep better time, brought him a degree of renown and emboldened him to move to London, where he built up a large clientele and made his name. It was in the capital that he began to build small table clocks of great technical accuracy that could be moved from one place to another by means of a handle on the top. In the almost thirty years that he spent in London, Knibb built up a considerable business, employing even more workers than the regulations of the Clockmakers’ Company allowed. He retired from business in 1697 and passed the torch to Samuel Aldworth, one of his apprentices. He died in 1711 in Hanslope, Buckinghamshire.
This clock is one of the most beautiful and rarest examples of the vast number of table clocks designed by Knibb during his career in London. Knibb table clocks are not rare: almost two hundred of them are extant, out of an estimated total of almost four hundred, and they are often to be found on the art market. A Knibb clock can be recognized by the ebony case that reveals the ingenious mechanism. The ornamentation consists of a group of brass figures of cherubs’ heads mounted on wings at the four corners of the face and insets of floral motifs on the dome of the case. However, among this huge number of clocks, only a very few can be assigned to what the historian Ronald A. Lee called “phase II” of Knibb’s oeuvre: the ebony cases are smaller,(3) and, most notably, Knibb replaced the brass of the ornaments with silver. The effect is richer and the silhouette more elegant, as are, we can guess, the miniaturized mechanisms. It is to this outstanding group – of which only five examples have as yet been identified – that our clock belongs.
The clock face and the backplate both bear the signature Joseph Knibb Londini fecit [Joseph Knibb made it in London]. The presence at the back of an elegant brass plaque embellished with floral motifs clearly indicates the maker’s desire to have his work admired from every angle. This clock, a practical object that could easily be moved, should be admired as a sculpture, from the front and the back and on both sides, so the viewer can marvel at the tiny details of its extraordinary mechanism.
Sincere thanks to Chantelle Lepine-Cercone for her help in researching this object.
1. Ronald A. Lee, The Knibb Family, Clockmakers (1964), p. 21.
2. Clare Vincent and Jan Hendrik Leopold, European Clocks and Watches in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2015), p. 104.
3. These cases were not produced in Knibb’s workshop but sub-contracted to a cabinet-maker, name now unknown, subject to the clockmaker’s explicit instructions. This explains why we sometimes find them adapted to the mechanisms of other contemporary clockmakers, including Thomas Tampion and Ben Willoughby.
Joseph Knibb (1640-1711)
Ebony, silver, brass, velvet
30.5 x 23.2 x 16 cm
MMFA, gift of Andrew Neil Ivory and Nigel Andrew Ivory in memory of Neil Basil Ivory