"The Best Art In The World"
By ERIK LA PRADE, March 2023
Emily Dickinson kept a clock by her bed. It sat on her armoire. The clock was an automaton, which comes from the Latin word “automatos”– “a self-moving machine, one that acts by itself ” – originally from the Greek word “automatos,” meaning “self-moving.” Such clocks were popular novelties in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Emily’s clock was made in France, circa 1830. It comes under a catalogue of clocks known as “rocking ship clocks.” The wooden base of the clock also contains a music box, and when wound up, it played a sea melody. Unfortunately, the key to the music box has been lost. Whether the clock was given to Emily by a family friend or relative is not known. After Dickinson died, the clock went to her sister. Thereafter, it was passed on to a grand niece, who eventually sold it to two artists along with Dickinson’s personal bookcase.
I encountered both the bookcase and the clock when I visited these artists, friends of mine, at their home in Milton, Pa. The bookcase is located in a bedroom on the first floor of the house. It’s a massive piece of furniture measuring approximately sixteen feet high and thirteen feet wide. The clock sits on a table in another part of the house.
Since I was staying with my friends for several days, I had ample opportunity to examine Dickinson’s clock, which I found quite fascinating. Its dimensions are impressive, measuring 23 inches high and 16 inches wide at the base. It is constructed of cast brass, veneered wood, tin, cloth and painted metal.
The upper part of the clock is elaborately crafted and expertly cast in rich, golden-colored brass. At the apex sits a winged putto-like figure, presumably one of Neptune’s putti, who often attend him in classical sculptures from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, especially on fountains. This putto is seated on a shell-like throne, clad only in a cloth draped across his lap. His feet are bare. He holds a trident in his left hand, and points downward with the index finger of his right hand, glancing to the right, as though looking toward someone, directing them, or us, to look at the clock’s face for the time.
Below the figure of the putto is the clock’s face, also in brass. It is ornate, surrounded by a border of what look like traditional acanthus leaves and floral elements, but which also suggest waves. The face itself is only 4.25 inches in diameter, and has two keyholes where one would wind up the clock mechanism. At the base of the clock’s face is a large decorative scallop-shell.
Underneath the clock’s face, is a large opening, embraced on either side by supporting feet in metalwork, continuing the florid acanthus-style border of the upper area. These acanthus leaves, however, are cleverly formed into the shape of two dolphins, one on either side, tails up and noses down. Within the opening between them is the mechanical “automaton” portion of the clock. Once there was a convex glass covering this area, but it has been lost.
Within this space, I can see a small wooden ship with two masts, set in a seascape tableau. The wooden base of the clock upon which the upper bronze portion rests and which functions as the pedestal for the ship tableau, is adorned with an inlaid garland of flowers surrounding an image of a ship with billowing sails.
The ship itself is three inches long, its tiny fo’c’sle rising up above fabric waves, indicating a rough voyage. Behind the ship is a blue-green seascape, painted on tin, consisting of a scene of two cliffs bracketing a bay. Two houses perch on one cliff, beyond which is an open view of the sea with a faint view of sailing ships in the distance. This is a very calm sea, in contrast to the sea the mechanical ship sailed on when in motion. This motion was supplied by a wind-up mechanism in the clock’s base, which worked independently of the clock mechanism.
The key for winding this mechanism seems to have been lost, so the question of when this ship last sailed seems unanswerable. It has been frozen in time; the small tin sails filled with wind as the ship breasts the waves, helped by a protruding metal rod pushing the ship upwards.
My curiosity getting the best of me, I try to lift the upper metal portion of the clock, and discover that it is detachable and can be separated from the base, revealing the mechanism that makes the ship roll back and forth on the waves.
The “sea” beneath the ship is made of a dark and very soiled piece of fabric, possibly sheeting or cheesecloth, measuring about 2.25 inches wide by 6 inches long, supported by two metal brackets. It was presumably once painted a sea-green or blue, but the paint has turned a filthy grey with the center fallen in and hanging down in the middle. The cloth, probably over a hundred years old and very fragile, hangs over the brackets at the edges. I carefully lift this cloth at the edge, enabling me to peer down into the gear box.
Next, I stick my finger into this box and feel the small cogs and fly wheels of the mechanism which control the ship. I find a cog wheel in the middle of the box and begin to turn it clockwise. Thus, with my middle finger, I rotate the flywheel a full 360 degrees and the ship begins to roll like a ship in a storm! As I continue to move the flywheel, the ship moves, first upwards, then downwards, behind the cloth “waves.” Then it rolls to its leeward side as though about to capsize! But, with another half turn, the forward part of the ship rises again out of the waves, into its original position, as I had found it. I take my finger out of the gearbox and put back the dirty piece of cloth as close as possible to its original position covering the gears. I then lift the upper part of the clock and place it back into its place on the wooden base. My sea voyage is over.
Did Emily Dickinson ever wind up this clock? I’ve been told that it sat on the dresser in her bedroom and was one of the first things she saw when she woke up in the morning. Ms. Dickinson’s poetry contains a number of images of the sea, although it is known that she never actually spent time at the ocean. Perhaps her clock with its mechanical sailing ship was all she needed to stimulate her nautical imagination. Two of Dickinson’s poems with sea references follow; the first follows a conventional form and expresses a fairly conventional idea; in the second, however, Dickinson allows herself to explore uncharted seas, so to speak, in both form and imagery. WM
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1924:
On this wondrous sea,
Knowest thou the shore
Ho! pilot, ho!
Where no breakers roar,
Where the storm is o’er?
In the silent west
Many sails at rest,
Their anchors fast;
Thither I pilot thee, ––
Land, ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!(1)
I started Early – Took my Dog –
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –(2)
Notes1. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Little Brown & Co., Boston, MA, 1924, Poem CXLI, from Part Four: Time and Eternity.
2. Ibid. Poem XIX from Part Two: Nature.
Thanks to Sandra Cranswick for her editorial assistance.
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author