If Proportion Isn’t Right, So What?

Cowan Clock Screen Shot

Albert Sack once said about antiques: If the proportion isn’t right, nothing is. The American decorative art from 18th and 19th century, regardless of regional preferences and regional characters, has been well defined as a set of specific visual vocabulary, beyond which authenticity and originality would be cast in doubt.

But often, Americana has its whimsical way to elude the curatorial norm. Forget about the nuances we see in American classical furniture that differ from its English prototype –folk art furniture makes no apology for American inventiveness. In that case, if the proportion isn’t right, so what?

On Feb 15, 2014, Cowan’s auction in Cincinnati, OH offers a unique tall case clock and server. Its bold design is quite entertaining.

The lot description says

American (Ohio or Kentucky), ca 1815-1820. A very unusual combination of a small serpentine server in mahogany, maple and cherry, and a tall case clock in mahogany with mahogany veneers and lightwood inlay. The server with bottle drawers under secret lock drawers, flanking a central bowed door with a shallow shelf, housing the lower portion of a tall case clock. The end panels of the server are outlined in quarter rounds; these and the turned legs are both ebonized. The clock face, with painted dial, reads, L. Watson, Cincinnati, Ohio, for clockmaker Luman Watson (w. 1819 – 1834).

Cowan Clock Screen Shot (via Live Auctioneers)The combination of a clock and a server doesn’t appear to be a marriage made recently. It has seen repairs in the past. A handwritten repair note on the back of the clock dates in 1869 from a Kentucky shop. The mismatched color (less oxidized) of the bottom left drawer of the server indicates some more recent repair. The auction house also notes that pendulum bob and weights are late. Nevertheless, it has certainly been treasured through a generation of owners, as the provenance shows that the hefty item has been moved from Ohio to Kentucky and then Upstate New York. A label at the bottom shows it was probably once owned by a family at 1400 Lincoln Street in Jamestown, NY.

Ohio or Kentucky, at the first quarter of the 19th century, was largely a frontier. That physical distance to the east coast (such as Philadelphia or New York) has encouraged more individualism and pragmatism for the local cabinet makers. True, it takes a while to get used to seeing a slender clock and a squat server stacked together; yet you can probably find the best Boston or Pennsylvania tall clocks (with deep pockets) at the annual Americana shows, where can you find another one like this?

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