Collector’s Showcase: March 2016

Collector's Showcase: March 2016

The J. Cheney Wells Clock Collection at Old Sturbridge Village

The J. Cheney Wells collection of over 100 early New England clocks is not what one would expect to find when visiting Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, an early 19th century living museum village that re-creates everyday life in rural New England through the use and display of the tools and technology of the time. Yet these two distinct collections with seemingly little in common are the legacy contributions of two brothers from Southbridge, MA who pursued different passions but shared a vision in the founding of Old Sturbridge Village (OSV).

Joel Cheney Wells (1874-1960) was the younger brother of Albert B. Wells (1872-1953), the collector who spearheaded the museum project in 1936 as a way to give context and renewed purpose to his extensive collection of Americana primitives, at the time housed in a family home turned local history museum in downtown Southbridge. The two worked with their brother, Channing, and their father George W. Wells in the family business, American Optical Corporation. In fact, Cheney is credited with “forty patents and some applications pending relating to improvements in eyeglasses of various types also of bifocal lenses.”

Collector's Showcase: March 2016

Cheney, as he was known to family and in business, is described as a meticulous man who liked order and had a “flair for tinkering.” “It was the mechanical precision of clocks that appealed to him,” says Thomas Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village, in an attempt to shed light on Cheney Wells’ fascination with early New England clocks. “For Wells, clocks represented the best combination of ingenuity, mechanical ability, and aesthetics found in New England’s early industries.”

Cheney’s acquisition of clocks started in the early 1920s and spanned three decades. His collection reflects an appreciation for tall case clocks, decorative mantle clocks, shelf clocks and “Banjo” wall clocks. It also pays homage to the craftsmanship and aesthetic of such New England clockmakers as the Willards, Joshua Wilder, Caleb Wheaton, Thomas and William Claggett, Samuel and Nathaniel Mulliken, Levi and Abel Hutchins, Nathaniel Munroe, Elnathan Tabor, Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, and Silas Hoadley, among others.

Unique to the collection is a Caleb Wheaton (1757-1827) Tall Clock. It is a superb example of the clockmaker’s art in the late 1700s in that it is both an exquisite machine with a third hand to indicate the day of the month and a moon’s age dial, as well as a beautiful and striking piece of exquisitely crafted mahogany furniture standing well over eight feet high. Elements of its case, made by a now-unknown Rhode Island cabinetmaker, such as the raised, carved shell and block front of the trunk door, the well-executed moldings, and the carved rosettes and ball and flame finials on the hood are all superb examples of the block and shell cabinetwork produced by craftsmen in Providence, where Wheaton worked. Another is a recent acquisition. The clockmaker is unknown, and while the clock and the inlaid case are nice it is unremarkable. It is, however, signed and dated inside the case in chalk by Oliver Wight, 1791. Cabinetmaker Wight owned the large Federal-era mansion house that is now the Old Sturbridge Lodge, at the entrance to OSV on Route 20. This is the only identified example of his work.

Not all the clocks in the collection are tall case clocks. There are also many fine examples of shelf clocks and wall clocks, including “patent timepieces,” variations on a design by Simon Williard made by him, his relatives, and competitors as more affordable but still attractive alternatives to tall case clocks. “Shelf clocks, many made with cheaper 30-hour movements by Connecticut makers such as Seth Thomas and Eli Terry increasingly transformed clocks from luxuries for the wealthy into a common feature in many households,” shares Kelleher.

When asked about his favorite, Kelleher is quick to point to a Simon Willard Tall Clock. “It is hard to pick only one clock, since so many appeal to me for different reasons, but Simon Willard (1753-1848) was such a prolific and influential clockmaker that it has to be one of his, especially an elegant tall case clock like that, with a mahogany case topped by intricate fretwork and brass finials. It’s a classic of its type.”

Although it took a few decades for Cheney’s clocks to find an appropriate home in the village, the J. Cheney Wells Clock Gallery opened in May 1982 showcasing 114 clocks and five watches. While the collection is predominately Cheney’s, Kelleher shares that the original collection has been refined to focus on clocks pre-1840, and new pieces have been added so the collection can tell the complete story of the “Democratization of Time” in the 19th century. “This is the best collection of early New England clocks, anywhere,” says Kelleher about the collection as it has now been curated and displayed.

While off the beaten path as one heads into the Village, a visit to the Gallery is well worth the time, especially on the hour when the sound of clock chimes remind us of the enduring beauty and precision of these works of art and ­science.

Collector’s Showcase: March 2016