The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Musical clock, Attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, the Elder, 1763
Musical clock, Attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, the Elder, 1763
Collection News

Conservation: Chiming Once Again

Among the treasures of the Wallace Collection are a group of highly important French clocks, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It has long been the Collection’s policy to run a selection of these clocks in the galleries, since this creates a unique atmosphere and helps to enhance the sense for visitors of Hertford House as a historic house collection, rather than simply a static museum collection.  The sound of the clocks ticking and chiming is an integral part of the magic experienced by our visitors as they walk through the sumptuously furnished rooms.

The Wallace Collection is delighted to announce that our two most popular French clocks, the magical carillon chimes of which have entranced generations of visitors, are once again playing their original eighteenth-century tunes.  The clocks are on display in the Front and Back State Rooms of the Collection, 

The first is the Stollewerck Carillon Clock (F96), a spring-driven musical mantel clock (pendule à musique) attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis père, dating to around 1760-63, which plays a different tune each hour from a total repertoire of 14 tunes.  Its movement is by Pierre Daillé, and the carillon itself is the work of Michel Stollewerck.  The Hunting Carollon Clock (F97) is also a spring-driven musical mantel clock, made in about 1762, the case also attributed to Duplessis.  It plays one of 13 tunes each full hour, on the hour.  The clock-case was cast and chased by François-René Morlay and the movement is by François Viger, but the maker of the carillon is not known.

The decision had to be taken some five years ago, on conservation grounds, no longer to run the carillons, effectively silencing the clocks and drastically reducing the experience for visitors in the galleries.

Now, avoiding any further wear and tear to the particularly complex and delicate carillon movements of these two historically-important clocks, the tunes triggered by the clock ‘going train’ movement on the hour, every hour, are in fact digital recordings, of such high quality that it is impossible to tell the difference.  The decision to use recordings, rather than allowing the carillon movements to run, was not an easy one to take, but this was the only way that we could all enjoy the wonderfully evocative and arresting sound of the chimes whilst simultaneously protecting the delicate mechanical musical movements for posterity.  Much thought, effort, research and inventiveness has gone into the digital sound system devised for the clocks.  So innovative was the final solution that the Collection is currently applying for a Pilgrim Trust Award to recognise the work of the principal contract sound-engineer, John Leonard, and Senior Furniture Conservator Jurgen Huber, who between them successfully brought it about.

In the case of most of the clocks in the Wallace Collection, the parts of the movements most prone to suffer wear have long ago been replaced, so the question of wear and tear to ‘original’ parts does not often arise.  The case of the carillon clocks is somewhat different, however.  The intricacy and mechanical complexity of their chiming trains, and in particular their use of a musical carillon cylinder mechanism (similar to those found in old-fashioned musical boxes), means that they are particularly prone to mechanical problems and wear.  The musical cylinder is made of brass, with tiny (0.3mm diameter and 1mm long) fragile metal pins inserted into it.  As the cylinder slowly turns, levers engage with these pins to lift hammers which then fall onto a range of different bells, thereby creating a tune.  To play a different tune each hour, once it has finished playing the cylinder is moved about 1mm sideways, with the consequence that different pins then lift different hammers to create a different tune.  Over time, however, the pins in the cylinder wear down or break, and their contact points with the levers and hammers abrade, so the pins and/or the contact parts have to be replaced.  Furthermore, there is a greater risk of wear and tear with this kind of mechanism, because the cylinder turns very slowly and is at rest in one position for quite a long time, therefore accumulating a substantial amount of dust brought in by the thousands of visitors who pass through our galleries every month; the main clockwork mechanism positioned directly above the cylinder can then drip oil onto the cylinder, turning the dust into a form of abrasive paste.  On the Hunting Carillon Clock the pins had already been replaced, probably even before it entered the Collection.  Recognising the fragility of the musical cylinder, recordings were made of all the melodies; advances in sound technology enabled these to be re-recorded to a much higher standard than ever before.

With such recordings in hand, it was only a short step to suggesting that they be used to save further wear and tear to the carillon movements, especially since the advent of miniaturized sound-systems should theoretically make it easy to install a music-player inside the clock-case.  With conservation issues increasingly on everyone’s mind, few nowadays would dispute the necessity for considering such action.  Over the past few years the musical cylinder on both clocks had become increasingly unreliable, so that only major interventive restoration (potentially threatening the aesthetic and structural integrity of the clock movements) would have reversed the situation.  For a long time now, both clocks have only played a single melody, whereas originally, a different tune would have played each hour, the change-over taking place automatically thanks to complicated but fragile connections within the mechanism itself.  To correct this fault, several worn internal parts would have had to be replaced (involving very interventive, highly-specialized and expensive work, without any guarantee that it would not cause still more parts to wear down).  The replacing of original parts on any work of art is always controversial, and in this case would have been especially so.  Worse of all, however, it was by now clear that any such replacement of parts would not ‘solve’ the problem once and for all, but only postpone it for other generations to face again, in the future.

However, although seemingly straight-forward, this idea in fact took nearly four years to come to fruition, turning out to be infuriatingly difficult to accomplish in the way that we desired.  Quite a few museums have digital recordings of clocks, either replicating the sound of the going train, or the hourly chimes, but these recordings usually either run continuously or are activated by visitors pressing a button.  In many cases the fact that visitors are listening to a recording is very obvious, both because of the way in which the recordings are accessed and their poor audio-quality.  What we wanted was a device which would play the recording of our chimes upon being triggered by the movement of the clock’s own internal mechanism, but without causing additional strain or wear to any original moving parts.  It would have been easy to have a sound-player, connected to the mains electricity supply, somewhere in the room near to each clock, which would have played the melodies either according to an electronic timer or as activated by a visitor.  However, we wanted the chiming melody to play in synchronisation with the clock movement rather than according to ‘real’ time, and without the intervention of our visitors.  The logical conclusion was to have the recording triggered or activated by the clock movement, just as it would have been originally, but without physical contact with any moving parts, and to have the sound emanating from the clock itself rather than a loudspeaker outside the case. Both of these requirements relied on extreme miniaturization and advanced electrical technology; we very rapidly discovered that we needed much more than just a micro-switch, an MP3 player, and an electric battery!

Ultimately, the dedication, commitment and ingenuity of John Leonard, a professional sound-engineer, working closely with Jurgen Huber, senior furniture conservator, led to the development of the new system, which features the following innovations:

  • It plays all the tunes of our two French musical clocks, in sequence, as with the original carillon movements
  • The sound quality is undistinguishable from the original
  • It is activated by the clock movement (the ‘going train’), and not by a digital timer or by visitors pressing a button
  • Playback is activated by a optical micro-switch that does not require physical contact with any original moving part of the ‘going train’
  • The clock movements are unaffected and will still be wound as usual every week
  • Everything including the loudspeakers fits into the very tight existing space within the clock-case; nothing has been altered, removed or fixed to the original fabric of the clock
  • The device can be removed at any time without leaving any trace of its existence
  • The system is battery-operated and can run for up to five days before needing replacement
  • It does not require any cables, contacts or other parts to be visible outside the original clock case

There are not many alternatives to what we have done; the least interventive would have been to stop the carillon movement completely and have no melody playing at all, or alternatively we could have spent a huge sum of money to build and install a modern replica carillon, placing the original in store; a very controversial treatment which would have altered the very fabric of this historic clock.  What we have now done, however, is completely and safely reversible, altering nothing of any part of the mechanism.