Some thoughts on Litchfield’s clocks

While driving along West Street in Litchfield one may catch a glimpse of the time from the clock of the Congregational Church, or in the tower of the Litchfield County Court House.  Subconsciously, the driver is forced to think back to his or her student days to convert the Roman numerals on the face of the clock to Arabic numerals.  This is all done very quickly, and without much thought.

Out on foot to explore his surroundings, however, one may recognize that the faces of these two clocks do not properly correspond to traditional Roman numerals.  Instead of using “IV” for four o’clock, both of these clocks use “IIII.”

London’s Big Ben

They are not alone.  It is customary for clockmakers to substitute “IIII” for “IV” on their works.  There are notable exceptions – Big Ben, the famed London clock whose tower was renamed for Elizabeth II this year in honor of her diamond jubilee, sports the numeral “IV.”  As with so many traditions, there are conjectures as to their origin, but no definitive explanations.

Some speculate that the use of “IIII” provides symmetry to the clock face.  One through four o’clock, only make use of the numeral “I” while the next four hours utilize “V” and “I” and the final four use “X” and “I”.

Does this clock face demonstrate a lack of balance or symmetry?

Others say that the explanation is that the numeral “IIII” provides a better balance to its counterpart “VIII” than “IV” would.  Don’t tell Big Ben.

Jupiter (IVPITER), also known as Jove (IOVI)

Still others hold that the tradition dates back to the Romans, who never used “IV” on their clocks because the letters “IV” were the first two letters of their spelling of the god Jupiter (IVPITER), and they didn’t wish to tempt fate.  This explanation would make for a good story if the Romans actually used clocks.  Does the numeral “IV” appear on sundials?

Those pessimistic about the nature of mankind argue that it is easier to count by adding I’s than it is to subtract I from V, an argument that does not take into account that 9 is “IX” and not VIIII.

The Wells Cathedral Clock

As this blog celebrates history, let’s accept that the tradition follows the lead of the oldest extant public clock, the Wells Cathedral Clock.  This clock, found in the west of England, proudly displays four o’clock as “IIII”, and has since its installation, which was – at the latest – in 1392.

The present Litchfield Congregational Church was built in 1829; however, when a new church was built in 1873, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including as a movie theater and roller skating rink.  It was restored to its original use in 1930, as part of the town’s Colonial Revival makeover.  The clock would have served important purposes, not only calling residents to worship, but also pealing to announce important news or of fire.

The Litchfield County Court House boasts a Seth Thomas clock tower.  This was installed in 1890 as part of the rebuilding of the court house following an 1886 fire.  When the court house was remodeled in 1913-14 – again, to make the structure fit with its Colonial Revival surroundings – the clock tower was retained.

These two clocks don’t display the exact same time, and as such are vestiges of a bygone era, when passersby didn’t need a digital device connected to satellites to provide them with the precise time.  Most still relied upon sundials and hour glasses to tell time; perhaps in a rapidly changing world, the numeral “IIII” grounded them in ancient traditions.

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Anson Dickinson: Milton’s Miniature Portraitist

Marker for the site of the Dickinson home, along Sawmill Road in Milton.

Litchfield’s borough of Milton, located in the northern part of town, derives its name from the several small mills located there along the Shepaug River.  One of those mills was the corn mill of brothers Benjamin and Oliver Dickinson.  Oliver was a master carpenter who counted among his constructions the Trinity Episcopal Church in Milton.  Around 1778, Oliver married Anna Landon, and their son Anson was born in 1779.

Tools of a silversmith

Around 1796, when he was 17, Anson became the apprentice of Isaac Thompson, a Litchfield silversmith.  Of his apprenticeship, it was written:

He was frequently observed to steal away to a retired chamber and spend hours of solitude, intent upon some deep and self-imposed task.  Some of the family finally discovered that he had been intently engaged in painting

Elizabeth Canfield Tallmadge, painted by Anson Dickinson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dickinson’s work was evidently of such beauty that he was released from the terms of his apprenticeship, and he embarked on a career as a miniature portraitist.  In 1802, the following advertisement appeared in the Connecticut Journal:

Anson Dickinson has taken a room directly opposite the Episcopal Church, he he offers his services to the Ladies and Gentlemen of New Haven, in the line of MINIATURE PAINTING.

Dr. Daniel Sheldon of Litchfield, painted by Dickinson in 1831. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The earliest known portrait by Dickinson is of his uncle, Abel Dickinson, which was painted on New Year’s Day, 1803, and is signed by the artists on the reverse side.  Litchfield, with several well-to-do residents and the students of the Sarah Pierce Academy and Tapping Reeve Law School provided a steady source of commissions when Dickinson’s practice was starting out.

Attorney Charles Perkins, painted by Anson Dickinson, likely when Perkins was a student at Tapping Reeve’s law school. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

A particular challenge for all miniature portraitists of the time period was obtaining the necessary equipment for the craft.  In addition to the pigments needed to ground into watercolors and the glycerins and gum arabic that were utilized to achieve consistency, Dickinson required magnifying and reducing glasses.  The reducing glass was used to secure the correct proportion for his subject, and the magnifying glass allowed for the fine detail work in his paintings.  Both of these required stands so that the artist’s hands were free to paint.

New York City, 1830

Soon, Dickinson exhausted the potential commissions of Litchfield, and embarked on a being an itinerant artist.  He traveled to New York, Albany, Montreal, and even Charleston, South Carolina between 1805 and 1812.  In 1812, Dickinson married Sarah Brown of New York City.  The couple settled in New York City, and in 1824 adopted two children.

“Colonel McIntyre” painted by Anson Dickinson around 1810.

Dickinson would spend the next eight years operating a New York studio, and became so well established that he no longer needed to seek out commissions.  In this eight year period, he painted almost three hundred portraits, including some of the most famous residents of the city.

Portrait of Asa Bacon by Anson Dickinson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

In 1819, however, financial panic struck the city and the country, and Dickinson relocated his operations to Montreal and Quebec, and in 1822 moved to Boston.  A few years later, he had relocated to Washington, D.C.  He was unable, however, to rediscover the success he enjoyed before the panic, and returned to Connecticut in the early 1830s.

Again, we are left to ask: who erected this monument?

Dickinson died in Milton on March 9, 1852, at the age of 73.  He had spent over forty years traveling the United States and Canada to execute what many considered to be the finest American miniature portraits.  His tally of portraits exceeded 1500, an average of about one a week over the length of his career.  Celebrated in his own time, Dickinson has been largely forgotten in ours.  His works, however, grace the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.