The Chinese were fascinated by clocks ever since their introduction into China during the late Ming dynasty. Both the imperial court and private collectors developed major collections of clocks. For over three centuries, the Chinese studied and replicated Western clock mechanics. The clocks created by the Qing court workshops were the finest and best documented, and the trajectory of their development gives a basic picture of the history of clocks in China as a whole. The freestanding gilt bronze clock with a Qianlong reign mark currently on offer at Sotheby’s is one of the products of the Qing court workshops. Let us now put it into its historical context to allow collectors and other interested people a fuller understanding of its significance.
The clock is in the form of a freestanding tower, square at the bottom and circular at the top. It measures 24 cm wide, 24 cm deep, and 55 cm tall. It stands on four spherical wood feet with gold bands running around them. Above these is a narrower waist decorated on all four sides with scrolling floral patterns in gold paint, and above the waist a gilt-copper plate with rounded corners. On all four corners of the plate stand gilt-bronze columns carved with passion flowers, which in turn support a square frame above. Between the columns is the main body of the clock, with the movement in the middle and sliding doors on the right, left, and back sides. The frontal bronze plate is embedded with a silver clock face. On each corner of the clock face is embedded a cut-branch of passion flowers. The circular gilt-bronze plate inside the clock face is carved with leaf scrolls over a ground with round bead patterns. At the top of the circular plate is embedded a curved silver plaque that bears the reign mark Qianlong nian zhi. Three winding holes are located respectively at the positions of 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. The clock hands end with flower-shaped needles made of blue steel. Above each corner of the main body of the clock is a rectangular pillar topped with an ovoid structure with a stupa-like ending. Railings decorated with interlocking guaizi-patterned scrolls run between these pillars. In the middle of the pillars is a double dome ending with another stupa-like structure at the top. The lower dome contains twelve archways, each half-covered with a shield carved with passion flower patterns in openwork. The upper dome is carved in openwork with a continuous passion flower scroll. The top structure consists of a sphere topped by a stupa-like ending. The movement contains three mechanisms, responsible respectively for keeping time, reporting the hour, and reporting the quarter-hour. At every hour and quarter-hour, the clock knocks on the bronze bowl. The clock also came equipped with a mechanism for reporting the time on demand by pulling on a string (now lost) suspended through a small hole on the right door. The decorative scheme of this freestanding clock consists primarily of passion flowers. The workmanship is very sophisticated. Gilded in its entirety, the clock gives an aura of luxury, and most likely originated in the clock workshop of the Qianlong court.
The Qing court’s production of clocks began in the Shunzhi period (1644-1661), which immediately followed the Manchu’s conquest of the Chinese mainland. But technological limitations meant that these early clocks were inaccurate, and were rather closer to mechanical gyroscopes with the appearances of clocks. The introduction of Western technical knowledge during the Kangxi period (1662-1722) greatly improved the quality of Qing clocks. The imperial court even established the Zimingzhongchu, a workshop that created new mechanical clocks to order and repaired old ones. During the Qianlong period (1736-1796), Qing clock-making reached an unprecedented height, as symbolised by the Zaozhongchu (sometimes called Zhongzaochu), a workshop specialising in clock-making. Among the clocks produced here, the Yuzhizhong or Imperially-Made Clocks were renowned for their expensive materials and luxurious appearance. They were mostly meant for use by the emperor, empress, and imperial consorts. According to extant data, the Zaozhongchu expanded rapidly during the Qianlong reign, expanding from three rooms to nine rooms within the palace. It developed a systematic workflow incorporating Western technicians, craftsmen employed from outside the palace, and supervising eunuchs. At its height, it employed over one hundred people. In particular, Jesuit missionaries highly trained in clock-making were in charge of technical supervision, and many of them had already been famous clock-makers before their arrival in China. Such an elaborate and all-rounded team of experts ensured the quality of the clocks produced by the court, which harmoniously combined their makers’ various cultural backgrounds and fields of technical knowledge.
Making clocks and other pleasing mechanical contraptions to meet the needs of the emperor and the court was the Zaozhongchu’s foremost mission. The participation and approval of the emperor was paramount. In general, the process began with the emperor’s expression of a preference or explicit demand, which was expressed as an official edict to which craftsmen responded with designs. Once approved, the designs would be realised in production. The emperor personally supervised and approved every aspect of the clock-making process, from design to material, as evidenced by the abundance of relevant Qing court records. For this reason the clocks produced in the Qing court are called Imperially-Made Clocks. Sometimes the emperor rewarded or punished the personnel responsible to ensure the quality of these clocks. Good work was rewarded with silver and gifts. Craftsmen producing subpar works were punished with withheld payments, financial penalties, withheld reimbursements, and even dismissal from the court and return to their places of origin. This hands-on approach by the emperor ensured that the clocks produced by the Zaozhongchu were among the finest of the period, and those created under Qianlong’s auspices were especially excellent. The best Imperially-Made Clocks to survive today virtually all date from the Qianlong period, and constitute the bulk of the former Qing imperial collection of clocks. Qianlong-period clocks are noted for the following characteristics: their primary structures tend to be made of wood frames covered with bronze casings, and they tend to feature architectural forms like pavilions, terraces, towers, and pagodas. They are also noted for their refined craftsmanship. The faces of Qianlong clocks tend to feature floral patterns in colourful enamels over bronze grounds, or use traditional European-style silver fittings. Moreover, Qianlong-clocks tend to feature the Qianlong nianzhi reign mark, a proud symbol of their refinement and excellence.
The above brief introduction to the history of clock production in the Qing court suffices to tell us that it was a unique system. Imperially-Made Clocks were a monopoly of the imperial court, and to understand and appreciate them we must return them to their original historical context in its concrete and microscopic detail. The present Qianlong-period freestanding bronze clock is notable for the following points:
First, this clock is typical of Qianlong-period Imperially-Made Clocks. As mentioned above, the Qing court gathered the finest craftsmen of the time and had extensive resources. The emperor’s direct participation further ensured that the design, manufacture, and testing of each clock was individualised and without regard to cost. Qianlong-period clocks are noted for their attention to carved details and their placement. In this case, the bronze body is thoroughly gilded. Aside from the base and the rear door, it is covered throughout with passion flower patterns. Incorporating a variety of techniques, from embedding to openwork to subtractive carving, the flowers, leaves, and vines are all finely articulated, which took a tremendous amount of time. The interlocking guaizi-patterned scrolls, the ruyi-shaped clouds on the doors, and the Qianlong nianzhi reign mark are all characteristic of Imperially-Made Clocks of the Qing court.
Second, this clock is a witness to the meeting of eastern and western cultures. The Zaozhongchu was the fruit of the meeting in the Qing imperial court between Chinese culture, as represented by the emperor and Western culture, as represented by the Jesuits. Like other Qianlong-period clocks currently in such collections as the Palace Museum and the Nanjing Museum, the present freestanding clock features distinctively Chinese decorative patterns like passion flowers but are formally modelled on contemporary or even earlier Western clocks. This fusion of cultural elements produced an exciting and harmonious new style.
Third, the movement of this clock showcases the mastery and ingenious adaptation of the mechanical principles of clocks. The escapements in these clocks are horizontally oriented but different from standard escapements in that they are directly connected to the top of the pendulum through steel plates. This avoids the V-shaped pendulum movement and the steel spring above the pendulum typical of other clocks. Although enforced by technical and material limitation, this structural innovation suggests the ingenuity of the Qing workshop. The structural simplification did not affect the functionality of the clock at all, and accorded with the Daoist philosophy of returning original simplicity.
To conclude, the present freestanding gilt bronze clock is characteristic of Imperially-Made Clocks of the Qianlong period. It provides precious material for our understanding of the production of clocks in the Qing imperial workshops.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale