Last on the market in 2008, a remarkable late 19th century English clock returned to auction. The Elkins family tall case carved with scenes from the tale of Dick Whittington and his Cat took $75,000 (£61,895) when offered by Fontaine’s Auction Gallery (26% buyer’s premium) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on September 23-24.
Although spuriously signed on the dial Joshua Hampson fecit 1743, the monumental 12ft (3.66m) high and 4ft 2in (1.27m) wide longcase is late Victorian design at its most confident. The heavy gauge movement plays seven tunes and strikes with the so-called Whittington chime that were popular in English clocks from the Victorian period onwards.
They take their name from a much earlier folk tale.
As the story goes, the young Dick Whittington had tired of working in the household of a rich London merchant, Mr Fitzwarren, and planned a return home. But as he left the city early on All Hallows Day he heard the Bow church bells ring out as if to say: Turn again, Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London.
Dick returned to London to learn that the cat he had reluctantly sent on a voyage in his master’s ship had been sold for a great fortune to the King of Barbary, whose palace had been overrun with mice. Dick had become a rich man. There is a grain of truth in the story: as the bells said, there was a Richard Whittington (c.1354-1423) who served as Lord Mayor of London on three separate occasions: first in 1397, then again in 1406-7, and for the third and final time in 1419-20. He bequeathed his fortune to form the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington which, nearly 600 years later, continues to assist people in need.
The cat, the mice, Father Time, Lady Justice and Mr Fitzwarren are all here on the longcase alongside the words Turn again Whittington Thrice Lord Mayor of London. The central figure of Whittington is not far short of life size. Although legend suggests Richard rose to greatness from obscure beginnings, to the base of the clock is a bust portrait of his father, Sir William Whittington (d.1358) who was himself a member of parliament for Gloucestershire.
There are a number of similar clocks in US collections, acquired by American industrialists from British firms who displayed their most flamboyant wares at the international exhibitions.
This example was previously owned by the Elkins family and resided at the former family mansion designed by well-known Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. It was left in situ when the house and gardens became a convent in 1932 and was bought by the new owner of the property when it was sold by Alderfers in April 2008 for a mighty $310,000 ($341,000 including buyer’s premium).