Neoclassical Motifs: George Clarke’s Alabaster Portico Clock at Hyde Hall

Nov 3, 2023

by Katherine Novko    

Research grant funding from the Decorative Arts Trust enabled me to spend one week with the Clarke Family Papers, part of the Cornell University Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collection. My study of domestic materials with Neoclassical motifs from Hyde Hall, the historic house museum near Cooperstown, NY, centers on an alabaster portico clock (figure 1) purchased by George Clarke in 1824. 

The archival record of Clarke’s spending habits provided important information regarding this French imported clock, which he purchased for $65 at the shop of David J. Magnin in New York City. Magnin was a clockmaker as evidenced by his advertisements in New York City newspapers, and an importer, based on multiple notices of shipments from Le Havre bound for his shop in nineteenth century newspapers. This information is foundational to my project’s discussion of the international economic systems that enabled a resident of central New York to purchase a French clock in New York City. Through archival evidence, it is clear Clarke made several trips to New York City where he purchased furniture, textiles, books, and clocks. 

The primary source information about this clock supplements the invaluable contextual information I have gathered about the Clarke family, which is proving invaluable as I continue my thesis research. Receipts spanning the decades of the early 19th century provided a trove of information about Clarke’s buying patterns and tastes. A fan of claret, and an avid collector of books, he became a three-dimensional person within the information gathered from the Clarke Family Papers. Combing through receipts and checkbooks from the time Clarke spent building and living at Hyde Hall allows me to situate the clock in the context of his other purchases. The type of object, relative price, and location of purchase are some of the criteria I will use to compare this clock to the other domestic products acquired to furnish Hyde Hall (figures 2 and 3).

While my thesis is grounded by the clock, understanding the context of this purchase necessitates a conversation about the social influences over aesthetic preferences expressed by American elites in the early 19th century. Letters between Clarke and his sons provide the entry points by which I can connect the style of this clock to the family’s educational and social world. Multiple references to a multi-year trip Clarke’s son Hyde embarked on around Europe in 1818 enable me to consider the role of the Grand Tour in the lives of young men in this era. The concept of traveling in Europe, and particularly focusing his itinerary on Italy and Greece, will factor into my discussion of the role of education and social expectations on Neoclassical design in the period of study. 

My time with the Clarke Family Papers uncovered critical information for my thesis regarding George Clarke’s alabaster portico clock, but my work in the archives has also encouraged me to address the roles and interactions between documentary evidence and material culture in historic house interpretation. Throughout the fall I will utilize the primary source evidence gathered from the Clarke Family Papers, conduct secondary source research, and attend the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors’ Symposium Horology’s Great Collectors as I draft my first thesis chapters. 

Katherine Novko is a Masters student in Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. 

Note: The Decorative Arts Trust refers to decorative arts of this stylistic period as Classical, but we have honored the art historical label used by the author for this article.

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