What you see: A mantel clock designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens [pronounced “Letchens”] for the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, circa 1930. Phillips estimates it at £80,000 to £120,000 ($105,200 to $157,800).
The expert: Marcus McDonald, senior design specialist at Phillips.
How often do pieces designed by Lutyens for the Viceroy’s House come to market? To my knowledge I’m not aware of any. I tried all the search engines.
And how rare is it to have a Lutyens piece that’s fresh to market and consigned by a member of the Lutyens family? It’s exceptionally rare. It hasn’t happened before to my knowledge. It has an impeccable provenance.
What does that suggest about how this clock will do at auction? We’re about to find out. The Viceroy’s House was by far his largest commission and possibly his most important commission. We have high hopes.
I understand the clock is not unique, and that Lutyens sometimes had copies made of designs of his that he especially liked. How many of these clocks exist, and where are they? Lady Willingdon’s clock [the wife of the first Viceroy to live in the home], I don’t know what happened to hers. She would have brought it back to the U.K. She had no descendants. Mary Lutyens, his daughter or granddaughter, still has hers. The third clock is the one we have, from the Lutyens family. Lutyens had it made for himself, and it’s by descent to the current owner. The three clocks are identical as far as I’m aware.
Did Lutyens design other clocks? I found another Lutyens clock in a Sotheby’s auction in 1987, and he designed a children’s clock for a nursery. I spoke to a horologist [about this clock]. The design is all Lutyens. The movement is a typical movement for the time, adapted to fit the oval face. The expanding hands are bespoke.
The body of the clock is painted mahogany. I’ve never encountered painted mahogany before. Did he use it often? It’s slightly peculiar. Pearwood is traditional for clocks. But you can see quite clearly when you remove the finial from the clock that it’s mahogany. I guess it weathered better in India. It seems like a sensible solution.
Why does it have expanding hands? Was that done because of India’s humidity? No, it’s because of the clock’s oval face. The minute hand has to expand to be in line with the Roman numerals. The hands are blued steel, to make them rustproof.
How is this clock an example of Lutyens’s “wit and vitality”? He always had jokes hidden within his work. Here, the pansy at the top of the clock is a key [the winding key]. Pansy is a pun on penser, the French word for “to think.” The play on words–pansy as in flower and the French word “to think”– is meant to be a reminder to wind the clock. We have a separate key-winder for it. It’s perfectly fine [to use the original key] but it’s [using the key-winder is] easier than using the one on the top of the clock.
Is the pansy pun one of his better puns? It depends on the observer, I suppose. But I think it’s a fairly good one.
What other details mark this clock as a Lutyens design? The truncated bun feet on the base. You see them in his furniture.
What is the clock like in person? It has a presence, certainly. When I first saw it in the client’s house, I was immediately drawn to it on the mantle.
What does it sound like? I haven’t heard it chime. I’ve only heard it ticking. You can hear it as you’re approaching. The sound of the ticking is lively and quite loud.
What’s the auction record for a piece of Lutyens-designed furniture? The highest at auction I’m aware of is a table that Sotheby’s sold in March 2014 for £62,500 ($104,500).
Why will this clock stick in your memory? It’s just such a captivating object. The provenance, the original location, and the designer are three elements that make it such an amazing work.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.
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