This blog story about The American Wall Clock & Lithograph shares one of those fascinating stories you only get from pieces brought in to the Restoration and Upholstery department. Our team of experts have been restoring and conserving antiques since 1979 and it is a fascinating part of the business. Not to mention and an excellent source of before and after pictures.
Every antique has a history and often a lot of sentimental attachment. We work with family heirlooms which have been passed down through generation to generation. Well-loved furniture which is in need of looking after. And, sometimes an acquired item with a very interesting provenance.
Last April in 2020, a customer came to us with an American Wall Clock in need of conservation. It was made from mahogany and contained a lithograph of the Old Courthouse in St Louis.
The base of the clock had been poorly patched in the past so one of the first things we needed to do was dismantle the base and replace it with mahogany to match the sides including the cross-grained mahogany moulding. Authenticity in restoration is important!
There was further patching that needed doing in one of the sides and in the cross-grained mahogany moulding. Antique restoration can be an arduous process when the goal is total and complete authenticity. Not that arduous is meant with negative connotations in this instance. Restoration is highly skilled and at Peter Hall & Son we pride ourselves on our ability to stabilise, maintain and preserve the integrity of furniture and antiques, without adversely altering its appearance.
After finally fusing off the damaged polish and cleaning the surface, the clock looked wonderful. What was even more exciting was the brightness and detail you could now see in the lithograph.
What is a lithograph?
A Lithograph is a type of print, which by the late nineteenth century was being used in advertising and to convey news. To make lithographs they use the immiscible nature between water and grease to create prints. Images are drawn with oil or wax crayons on to a lithographic limestone plate. The surface is then treated with a chemical etch to bond it to the surface. The bonded areas will attract the lithographic ink and the blank areas repel it. Once the image is inked paper is placed over the image and then passed through a litho press to transfer the image to paper.
The story in this Lithograph is an interesting one and there are a few clues that give us an idea of when the lithograph was made and some details about that time in history. Notice that some of the details in the images are in colour and some are not. For example, the horse-drawn streetcar in bright yellow. Significant, most likely, because of its recent invention in the late 1830s. However, the courthouse pictured was the one designed by Henry Singleton in 1839 and built in the Greek revival style so it is likely this is dated sometime in the 1840s. Another clue is the sky is not blue but quite a fearsome red. This could be related to the Great Fire of St Louis in 1849 that devastated vast numbers of buildings along the riverfront and twenty-three steamboats.
Have you noticed that some of the people in this image are in colour and some are not? This will likely be because of their rank in society and/or the colour of their skin. You will see the proof of this in their style of dress and the fact they are on horseback or in carriages.
You could spend rather a long time looking at all the details in this image and using what we know of history to unpick everything. The owner of this clock is a keen historian and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this piece of history.
We did query one detail, which you can interpret as you like. Like Paris at this time, the population grew quickly and St Louis was booming in the final years of the steamboat age. However, it was like Paris in another way: It was swarming with prostitutes! We noticed that the second building in the picture is duller than the courthouse and appears to have a woman waiting and watching at the entrance. The theory was this could be an establishment of ill repute or a bawdy house as they will have been known.
We can not be sure but it certainly makes for an interesting piece of history.