POUVILLON RESTORATION PROJECT
Maker, Paul Pouvillon, Nogent-sur-Oise,
France 1918-1939. Two train, weight-driven, pinwheel escapement, one second
wooden rod, with fine calibration from the top of the frame. Count wheel strike. Fifteen
day duration. This clock is extraordinary on many levels. It is considered to be the most
complicated clock made up to that time. It has over 40 complications packed into a very
small space including an ecclesiastical calculator; something only a handful of clocks ever
made exhibit. Movement 20"h x 6"w x 6"d, overall, with base 50"h. Click here to follow the
This movement employs a unique type of three
dimensional "space frame" rarely seen in other horological examples. 1
The dials appear uniformly on four of five possible sides of the rectangular shape, the
sixth being the base. These also occur within different indentations from vertical.
Then there is the combined tellurium and orrery that crown the entire movement. It is probable
that the the world's most complex domestic sized astronomical skeleton completed by Rasmus Sorens in 1966 drew some design inspiration from this clock as well as the large
institutional sized clock in Copenhagen, Denmark by Jens Olsen. 2, 3 The
Pouvillon clock still holds the record for its diminutive size.
In August of 2011 the firm Buchanan of
Chelmsford started the restoration of this clock. This is the same firm that has been fabricating
the astronomical skeleton clock
for the past five years. Here Buchanan will apply their skills toward the the restoration
of this clock. The following information is derived from an article written in the Horlogerie Ancienne, Summer 1985, two newspaper articles written in
Paris in the years 1953 and 1955, the auction catalogs of Antiquorum and Christies. 4, 5, 6, 7 My thanks to
Olivier Perrault and
Françoise Collanges for their translation efforts, Alain Binet, the local
town historian, and Andrew Hooper.
Paul Pouvillon was born
in the small town of Nogent-sur-Oise,
A on map. France about 20 miles (30km)
north of Paris on January 24, 1878. At twelve years of age he was apprenticed to a
clockmaker to learn the trade. He excelled at this apprenticeship to such a degree that
the master had waived his second year fee. Soon afterward he went to work for several
clockmakers and received high praise from each. In 1896, at
Besançon exhibition he obtained a
bronze medal. Two years later, he passed his professional
examinations for "Ouvrier d'Art". In 1902 he settled back
in his home town and began his own practice in the stone house that was originally bought
by his grandfather a half century earlier.
According to his business billhead, see below, he was awarded another medal
1906 in Paris. From 1929
through 1930 he undertook with another clockmaker from nearby Beauvais the repair the
complicated astronomical cathedral clock built by A. L. Verite between 1865 to 1868 in Beauvais. During this job he began to formulate the idea of building
his own astronomical clock. By the time of its completion, his astronomical clock brought
Pouvillon accolades: first at Beauvais, where it was shown in 1939, and then in Paris,
where it was awarded a silver medal. He was also awarded for this outstanding piece of
work the coveted title of "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" or "Finest Worker in
France". An award given annually by the government in various areas of artisanship. Pouvillon was made a Knight of lOrdre National du Travail in 1943 and
received the Palmes Académiques in 1947. He was made a Knight of the Légion dHonneur, for his work, on August 9, 1948. At 75
years of age he was still adding some complications to this clock through at
least 1953 and finished the final linkages
for the Easter calculator at the age of 77.
The first photo, taken in 1925, shows Mr. Pouvillon (far left) in front
of a pharmacy which was next door to his clock shop. The second photo is a
view of Main Street in Nogent sur Oise, later changed to Bonvillers. After WWII it renamed Général
de Gaulle Street. Mr. Pouvillon is depicted above the arrow. I believe this
photo to be slightly earlier than the one from 1925.
Shown above is an early letterhead from Pouvillon's
business. Note the crossed out address of 99 to 48 Rue de Bonvillers.
His first shop very near a building owned by, Mr. Soissons, his step
father from his first marriage who ran a coffee/tobacconist shop on this
same street. Pouvillon later moved his business to this location shortly
after WWI. He also crossed out the word 'bijouterie' or "jeweler" as he now
was concentrating his business on clock repair.
Pouvillon was married three times. He married his first wife
Anne Emily Soissons in October of 1902, there was one son from this
marriage in 1911, in December of 1914 he marries Anne Camille Tardy there
were no children from his second marriage and finally he marries Heloise
Picout, in 1954 at the age of 76. No children were produced from
his son, and he did not survive his father. Pouvillon died in 1969 at the
age of 91 and his wife passed away a few days afterward. He lived above his
workshop which contained his clock collection including this astronomical
clock. The building had been purchased years earlier on contract by the town
council and this supplied him with a monthly payment in return for taking
possession of it upon his and his wife's death to make way for a municipal
parking lot. Upon the death of Pouvillon's wife the house was quickly
emptied to make way for the demolition. Since both he and his wife died
within days of each other there were probably no preparations made for the
proper disposition of their belongings. It is unknown what happened to Pouvillon's
possessions. The next time we hear about the clock is when it is discovered
in a local charity shop, not unlike a Salvation Army store; in a state of
disassembly. Since Pouvillon had no direct heirs and the local government had a
claim to his house; a claim that they were probably anxious to secure since
Pouvillon had lived far past the age they thought they would ever have to
wait, the contents were hastily removed. Perhaps other, more distant
relatives were uninterested or unaware of his collection and so the
disposition of his belongings happened in a rather hurried and haphazard
way, given the need to demolish the building.
This photo, taken sometime in the 1970's shows the
dedication ceremony of the place where Mr. Pouvillon's home and business
stood before being razed for the municipal parking lot; plainly seen in the
background. The lower square dedication sign in the photo says "Place de
Paul Pouvillon, Meillieur Ouvrier de France, 1878 - 1969. The text is a
brief biography of Pouvillon mentioning his awards as well as this
astronomical clock claiming 57 complications.
It is unknown whether the clock went directly to the charity shop or if
it arrived later. It would seem to me probable that the entire contents of Mr. Pouvillon's
house went directly to the charity organization. If someone had actually purchased or
rescued the clock from the disposition of Pouvillon's home intact, it is unlikely that it
would have wound up in the charity shop. Perhaps after it sat in the shop some intrepid
employee tried his hand at getting the clock to work; took it apart and found himself
beyond his depth to get it back together. So for a time it lay, forlorn in pieces in the
shop. At some point someone had spotted the clock parts and bought it from the shop. It is
unknown whether all of the parts were rescued or if the sub-assemblies that we know are
missing were already gone by this time.
The next time the clock surfaces is evidenced from an advertisement in Antiquarian Horology, September 1983,
first photo. The clock dealer Jean-Pierre Rochefort, Paris had it for sale.
At this point someone, perhaps the Paris clock dealer, had added the extra
planets to fill the extra holding points in the orrery collets. This is why
there are so many more planets than actually exist. Afterward it next comes to the public eye at the auction
house of Antiquorum, Geneva, April 23, 1995, second photo. By this time all
of the planets were lost. It next appears at Christie's, London,
December 9, 2009 in largely the same condition. It is clear from these
photos that all of the subsystems we found to be missing were not present in
any of these photos.
If one looks carefully at the photographs of the clock
from these three sources, all of which took good pictures of the clock, we
can see that the movement has remained unchanged from 1983 through 2010. That does not mean that it did not suffer
during the fourteen years between the
time it left Pouvillon's house in 1969 to 1983. There are only two photographs we have been able to obtain
of the clock that we know are from the time before Pouvillon's death, because he appears
next to the clock in each one. The first is from a Paris newspaper article in 1953 and the
second from an undated photo in an article written about this clock in the French language
publication, Horlogerie Ancienne, Summer 1985. These two
photos, poor as they are, have proved invaluable to recreating a subsystem that has been
missing from the clock since at least 1983. Given the delicacy of the mechanism and the
meandering path it has taken over the past 42 years, it has survived in remarkably good
condition. The clock's wood stand did not fare so well and there are many
areas of damage, worm infestation and sloppy repairs. Sometime before it was
first exhibited in a Paris antiques dealer show in 1982
4. The base which was originally a
walnut grained finish was spray painted a gloss black. That base is now also
undergoing full restoration to its original finish.
The following pages will take you through the entire restoration
process. There are also pages discussing various sections of the clock. Much of the
disassembly and restoration is narrated by the restorer and you can listen to his comments
as they are made contemporaneously as he works on the clock. Comments are
made on the type of construction, materials and techniques that Pouvillon
used. A time line
of the different phases of construction
will be surmised from the context of the fabrication techniques and supported from the
historical information we have from the written materials we have been able to obtain up
to this time.
The Cosmochronotrope is one
other example that comes to mind. It is illustrated in Continental and American
Skeleton Clocks, Derek Roberts, pg. 204-206. 2. The Clockmaker
Rasmus Sornes, Tom Sornes. 3. Jens Olsen Clock, Otto
Horlogerie Ancienne, Summer 1985 produced by
Association Nationale des Collectionneurs et Ámateure d' Horlogerie Ancienne. 5.
Newspaper clipping written in France, presumably Paris and hand dated 1953. 6.
Newspaper clipping dated February 20, 1955, Le Parisien. 7.
Antiquorum, Geneva auction catalog, April 23, 1995, lot #162, Christie's, London,
December 9, 2009, lot #344.