Once it was realized that time could be measured, tracked and quantified with a technological device, the clock became an instant status symbol. However, clocks were expensive, affordable by only a fortunate few who “advertised” their wealth by displaying opulently decorated, artistically stunning examples in their homes.
Mantel clocks – timepieces designed to sit on a ledge above a fireplace – were coveted by the well-to-do in early 19th-century France. Having gained distance on the excesses of the French Revolution and embracing the stability promised by the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself emperor in 1804, the French were open to tasteful decorative flourishes again. The more-is-more madness of the Rococo style died with the French kings, and the French Empire style rose in its place, an aesthetic inspired by the neoclassical motifs of ancient Greece and Rome.
One of the masters of the Empire-style mantel clock was the French firm of Raingo Freres. Not much information about Raingo Freres has survived. Its four founding brothers, Adolphe, Charles, Denis and Dorsant, were sons of the famed clockmaker Zacharie Joseph Raingo. The senior Raingo was born in Belgium in 1775, apparently apprenticed in Paris in 1790, and later won the patronage of royal clients, including King George IV of England. Zacharie Joseph Raingo died in 1847, well after his sons established Raingo Freres in 1825. They, too, catered to royalty and became a favorite clockmaker of Emperor Napoleon III, his Empress Eugenie, King George IV (maintaining the relationship their father started) and other noble families throughout Europe. The Raingos’ specialty was elaborate gilded bronze mantel, table and wall clocks in the Empire and Neoclassical styles.
Every Raingo Freres mantel clock has several distinctive features. Most are rectangular and sit on at least four legs. What the legs look like is another matter. They can, and have, taken the forms of animal paws, scrollwork, leaves and round wheels. Above the feet is a pedestal festooned with flowers, wreaths, garlands or other fripperies. Atop the pedestal is a round clock face that is either centered or set to one side, depending on where an allegorical figure or neoclassical design element is placed. Most Raingo Freres mantel clocks were cast in bronze with gilding and chasing as an intrinsic part of the overall design.
Raingo Freres is known for its use of Greek and Roman motifs. Figures of gods and goddesses such as Venus, Apollo and Mercury, as well as chariots, columns, and winged putti (cherubs) appear on its mantel clocks as ornamentation or supporting elements. A style of clock known as a figural, which depicted historical personages, was in particular demand. Raingo Freres mantel clocks have included the likenesses of George Washington, Julius Caesar, Napoleon I, Plato, Socrates, and various scientists and writers.
The enduring popularity of Raingo Freres mantel clock designs have given rise to nearly continuous revivals, i.e., reproductions, making it difficult to identify an authentic original mantel clock by the firm. Confirming a genuine 19th-century Raingo Freres clock encompasses at least four steps.
First, examine the suspension mechanism. If it is made from silk, that is a sign the clock pre-dates 1850. Second, check the position of the count wheel, a component that counts the minutes. French clocks made prior to 1880 tend to have their count wheels placed outside the back plate. Third, look for a rack and snail wheel. If it is missing, rejoice; the device, which is used to strike the time, began to appear on French mantel clocks after 1880. The final step in the four-part inspection is finding the company signature. It typically appears in fanciful script either as inlay or as a ceramic cartouche, but it is also stamped as a mark on the back plate.
The firm routinely partnered with other major clock and furniture makers until the company dropped from view in or around 1870, save for one tantalizing exception: it was awarded a Medaille d’Or at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Exactly what the collaboration entailed is not known. Neither is it clear whether the gold medal was earned by a clock or some other creation.
We may not know much about the Raingo family, but their exquisitely detailed gilt bronze mantel clocks are widely celebrated by collectors and admirers for their elegant union of art and technology.