The Wallace Collection

A Sphinx Clock (F269)
Treasure of the Month - August 2004

A Sphinx Clock (F269)

This stunning mantelclock is one of the finest clocks in the Wallace Collection.

Dominated by the two imposing sphinxes that recline on the base, their wings rising up dramatically on either side of the clock face, it is a striking example of the neo-classical style that became popular in France by the mid-eighteenth century.

From the 1740s onwards, French artists and architects travelling to Romemade a close observation of the antique ruins in the city. Folio editions illustrating antique sites and the finds made at recent excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, such as the 'Recueil d'antiquités Egyptiennes, Etrusques, Grecques, Romaines' published by the scholar and antiquarian, the comte de Caylus, between 1752-67, became hugely popular. For many, the neo-classical style provided a welcome change from the rococo style that had characterised artistic production in the early eighteenth century. Now the curves and shell-like formations of the rococo were replaced with straight lines, symmetry and ornamental elements derived from classical architecture, such as swags and urns. The Romans had invaded Egypt and incorporated Egyptian motifs such as sphinxes in their art. Visitors to Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century would have sketched the antique sculptures of sphinxes in private collections, for example, at the Villa Albani, and in public collections such as the Capitoline and Vatican Museums. The use of sphinxes on this clock reflects this interest in the antiquities of Rome and foreshadows the popularity of Egyptian motifs following the French campaign in Egypt in 1798-9.

This clock was probably designed by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744-1818), architect to Louis XV and Louis XVI. Although he never went to Rome, he became closely involved with a circle of neo-classical artists including Charles-Louis Clérisseau and the comte de Caylus, who had both spent time in the city. One of Bélanger's most important patrons was the comte d'Artois, for whom he designed the château and park of Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. Interestingly Bélanger also designed a clock for Bagatelle which was decorated with two sphinxes like the Wallace Collection clock.

The recent conservation of this clock (see other gallery sheet) has revealed the jewel-like detail and subtle chasing of the gilt-bronze mounts. The contrast between the burnished areas of the sphinxes' head-dresses and breast-plates and the matt finish of their bodies is, for
example, now very evident. The sumptuous gilt-bronze mounts also include doves, flowers and foliage on the top of the clock and six medallions showing the signs of the Zodiac on the base, which is painted to imitate verde antico marble.