French Clocks – Science Keeping Time with Enlightenment Pt 4


Joseph Coteau (enameller) French 1740 – 1801 Skeleton clock (Pendule squelette) c1793-95 gilt and enamelled bronze (chased) marble courtesy Fondation Napoléon, Paris

General Napoleon Bonaparte, when he became Consul of France, encouraged the expansion and beautification of Paris and indeed, all of the French countryside. In an age of revolutionaries and romantics he inspired the continuing development of French art, design, style, culture and society between the 1770’s and 1820’s.

While he lived most of his life on the battlefield in a campaign tent Napoleon Bonaparte knew that when he became Consul if he was to project an image that he was a power to be reckoned with, he needed to build his own stage, one on which he would perform all the expected rituals of power just like the Kings of the Ancien Regime.

There is a skeleton clock in the ownership of the Fondation Napoleon at Paris. Indeed it was here in Melbourne last year as part of the great Napoleon exhibition. Made of gilded bronze and enamelled its dial is attributed to French craftsman par excellence Joseph Coteau (1740-1801).

The workers of its gilt bronze (chased) and movement are not known. What is understood is that it is a revolutionary period clock, because it displays both the Republican and Gregorian Calendars.

A ‘Republican’ calendar was proclaimed on 22nd September 1792 in France.

Its introduction meant that the French people were at total odds with the rest of the world, but nevertheless it was brought it into force on 6th October 1793 and endured for over a decade. However its inability to change French habits and impracticality of living out of step with the rest of the world caused Napoleon to abolish it on 9th September 1805. The Gregorian Calendar was restored in France on the 1st January 1806.

Joseph Coteau (1740-1801) A superb Directoire period Skeleton Mantel Clock France dated 1796 marble, ormolu and enamel, courtesy David Roche Foundation, South Australia

In every age good models give birth to ideas by exciting the imagination and this heritage is reflected in the design and decorative arts of the western world.

Another very fine skeleton clock of similar form has been attributed to French enamelist and creator of fine clocks Joseph Coteau (1740-1812). It is to be found in the David Roche collection at Adelaide in South Australia managed by the David Roche Foundation

The gilt bronze work on this clock is very fine and it follows the shape of the ‘skeleton’ mantel clock (Pt 2) in The Royal Collection and the Fondation Napoleon clock.

Martyn Cook Curator for the Foundation at Adelaide has provided the following detailed information about the clock and its production.

“The enamels are signed several times “Coteau invt et Ft” (Invented and made by Coteau).

The top dial shows the phases of the moon, the central dial with two train movement, arabic numerals, the day and date, while the lowest dial shows the month and the season.

The enamel painting below the dials portrays Diana and one of her handmaidens.

The enamel work has examples of “basse taille” painted and jewelled techniques and dated 1796 on the reverse, surmounted by an eagle with spread wings representing Jupiter upon a cloud.

These magnificent dials, plaques and case were executed by the esteemed enamellist originally from Geneva, Joseph Coteau who worked primarily in Paris, where he was established in rue Poupé (sometimes recorded as Roupée), St. André des Arts and was received as a maître in 1778.

In 1780 Coteau was appointed Peintre-émailleur du roi et de la Manufacture Royale de Sèvres Porcelain; for the next four years he did piece-work for Sèvres whilst also working independently in Paris as a flower painter, specialising in enamelling watchcases and clock dials.

By 1784 his production was considerable and though he was in great command he fell out with Sèvres over payments and thus his contract was terminated.

As an independent artist, he supplied dials, plaques and painted cases to the leading Parisian clockmakers including Robert Robin and Ferdinand Berthoud, both clockmakers to Louis XVI.

Coteau appears not to have enamelled watches or small scale pieces but tended to specialise in larger works which were technically more complex due to shrinkage during firing.

A Sèvres document states that he and Parpette (who also worked at the factory) introduced jewelled enamelling (a technique that involved enamelled gold-leaf foils) to both soft and hard paste porcelain.

Coteau also experimented with various polychromes, producing a blue, such as we see here, that was so rare and difficult to perfect that few of his contemporaries managed to copy.

The enamel paint was applied with a brush onto a copper plate and then the various colours were vitrified one by one in the kiln. The decoration was then enhanced by gilding, which after firing resulted.”

Reverse view: Joseph Coteau (1740-1801) Directoire period Skeleton Mantel Clock France dated 1796 marble, ormolu and enamel, courtesy David Roche Foundation, Adelaide S.A.

This outstanding clock has an outline of the form that did not change much over the years, although a great deal of their embellishments did.

The clock was exhibited first in 1982 at the Frick Collection in New York in a show entitled “French Clocks in North American Collections”.

Napoleon as Emperor set a high standard for the men in his all-new society. He was not a socialite and spent little time at the balls, presentations and festivals he ordered, preferring to read books or to see the famous actor Talma at the Comedie Fancoise.

He had a grand vision for France evidenced by his promotion of talented artists and craftsmen. Styles reflected the world Napoleon enjoyed, including his military campaigns on which he embraced ideals of Roman Empirical glory.

The David Roche Foundation clock well fits into its age.

Surmounted by the eagle with all its associated symbolism, the top dial reveals the phases of the moon, the central dial the time of the day, month and season.

All of his adult life Emperor Napoleon retained his strong admiration for Imperial Rome, embracing Roman ideas, ideals and historical precedent and they were reflected in the design of clocks during his reign.

Joseph Coteau (1740-1801) Directoire period Skeleton Mantel Clock France dated 1796 marble, ormolu and enamel, flanked by pair fabulous gilded candelabra featuring winged goddesses in Greek costume holding up writhing snakes victoriously – courtesy David Roche Foundation, Adelaide S.A.

The bronze work on the clock  is exceedingly fine and while no attribution has been made at this time, it is in the league of the quality produced by renowned bronzier Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843).

The David Roche Foundation has other examples of gilding completed by Thomire in their collection of fine decorative arts.

Thomire was a huge success story, a man who provided his talent to manufacture works used by royalty but then managed to survive losing his head during the French Revolution by making arms and ammunition.

He was appointed ciseleur de l’empereur or engraver to the Emperor Napoleon 1, because of the large number of pieces he had already supplied to French palaces.

His firm became fournisseur de leurs majestés (Furniture Suppliers to their Majesties) two years later.

Thomire’s business managed to survive even after Napoleon’s downfall, winning numerous medals at various exhibitions.

He must have been a born diplomat!

He finally retired at the age of seventy-two but continued to work as a sculptor, exhibiting at the Salon until he was well in his eighties.

One of his greatest triumphs in that period was collaborating on the manufacture for the cradle of the little King of Rome, Napoleon’s son by Marie-Louise of Austria his second wife.

The age of romantics and revolutionaries was an era when science and time were both aiding the advent of reason and encouraging the ‘enlightenment’ of both the men and women, who were helping to make, shape and keep good time with the expansion of the modern world.


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

French Clocks:  Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Ref: David Roche Foundation, Martyn Cook Curator of the Collection

 Watch our Video – The Empire Style


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