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York genius John Fisher, clockmaker and artist

Lewis Miller drawing of John Fisher

Even in his own time, John Fisher of York was recognized for his extraordinary skills as a clockmaker and artist. His clocks were not just your ordinary eight day tall case clocks of the late eighteenth century. He created musical clocks, playing different tunes, and in 1790 he created a thirty-five day clock, now in the Yale University collections.

Some clockmakers purchased stock clock faces—not Fisher. His painted faces and engraved brass faces were real works of art. A beautiful brass faced musical clock owned by York County Heritage Trust is now featured in the Paint, Pattern and People exhibit currently at Winterthur Museum.

The public is invited to join Winterthur curators Wendy Cooper and Lisa Minardi at York County Heritage Trust on Friday, October 7 at 7 p.m. for a special edition of YCHT’s Skold Lecture series to hear more about Paint, Pattern and People, including our John Fisher.

For more on the life and work of this remarkable Yorker see my recent York Sunday News column below:

Like Clockwork: The Talented Mr. Fisher
Clockmaker John Fisher of York was recognized as a genius by his contemporaries. Many of his clocks survive today, testifying to his skill in creating works of art with intricate mechanisms that accurately keep time. Some of Fisher’s clocks also played a variety of tunes or kept track of the rising and setting of the sun and phases of the moon as they changed from day to day. It was said that his clocks showed “elements of refinement comparable to Philadelphia and English makers,” the highest praise of the day.

We get a glimpse of Fisher’s skills in a newspaper ad he placed June 18, 1793 for an “apprentice to the clock and watch making business.” Fisher “flatters himself that from upwards of 40 years close attention to his profession, and a variety of inventions put in practice both as to the internal machinery of his Clocks, and also the beauty of the enamel and engraving of his Clock Faces, will induce some ingenious Lad to apply.” He will be taught “the method of making Musical Clocks, such as Chiming, also with Organs, as well as to shew the motions of the Heavenly Bodies, &c, &c.” Some clockmakers bought ready-made faces, but from this ad we know that Fisher himself executed the exceptional engraving and enameling shown on the faces of his surviving clocks.

John Fisher was born June 4, 1736 in Pfeffingen, Baden-Wurttemberg. He emigrated with his parents, Johannes and Catherine Kunsinger Fisher, and at least one sibling, Philip, arriving in Philadelphia in October 1749. Both parents died within six weeks of arrival and were buried in Philadelphia. Thirteen-year-old John is said to have worked on a farm, perhaps in Lancaster County, until he came to York Town in 1756 and became a clockmaker.

Fisher purchased property on the east side of the first half block of North George Street. In January 1766 Fisher married Barbara Leitner, 13 years his junior. Her parents, Adam and Barbara Beard Leitner, lived just across Clark alley from the Fishers. John and Barbara had three sons: coppersmith Charles; physician and druggist John, Jr.; and clockmaker George. Charles and John, Jr. stayed in York and George settled in Lancaster and then Baltimore.

John Fisher was also skilled at painting and woodcarving. He painted the Pennsylvania Coat of Arms and carved a statue of Justice for York’s original courthouse. (They are now on display at Winterthur Museum as part of the Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850 exhibit.) Lewis Miller illustrates Fisher painting a sign for the Black Bear tavern so realistically that his dog attacked the sign.

Fisher died December 28, 1808, leaving behind a sizable estate. He owned at least four parcels of property on North George Street, and the inventory of workshop and household goods alone was valued the equivalent of at least $24,000 today. Over four of the seven pages of inventory are filled with books on art, history, philosophy and science, some in German and French. There are maps and hundreds of prints, much too many to have been displayed. One source said that Fisher had a museum in a second floor room, so perhaps the prints were available for viewing there. The orphaned Pennsylvania German immigrant lad had certainly managed to become highly educated.

The item of highest value on the inventory is a Chamber organ for $200 (about $3,670 today). John Fisher reportedly owned a house organ built by the Moravian master organ builder David Tannenberg in 1780. Fisher is also said to have built an organ himself around 1790. Perhaps Fisher purchased the Tannenberg organ as an example to learn how to build one himself.

The two next highest items on the inventory are “one Musick Clock and Case” and “One Organ Clock,” each valued at $80 (around $1,460). One of Fisher’s best-known clocks, which his great-granddaughters Catherine and Amelia Kurtz called his masterpiece, is now in the Garvan collection at Yale. This “curious timepiece…which does the greatest honour to the inventor,” was described in York and Baltimore newspapers when it was completed in 1790. “The Timepiece performs the office of a common eight day clock, but runs thirty-five days; it exhibits the time of the Sun’s rising and setting, its destination, the longest and shortest days in the most distant parts of the world, all of which is clearly elucidated by a globe, affixed about three inches from the centre.” A moon circulated around the globe. The article goes on to describe the elegant engraving on the face: “the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the seven Planets, and twelve months, with the exact number of days in each month in a year.” The clock had a “new plan of winding” and was kept in motion for so long by 14 wheels, pinions, brass plates, clock weights and a second pendulum. The Kurtz sisters lived in John Fisher’s original residence until they passed away in the early 1900s.

John Fisher also made a stunning eight day clock that is now part of the York County Heritage Trust museum collection. It is presently also on loan to Winterthur Museum and Gardens as part of the Paint, Pattern and People exhibit. The musical clock, with its beautifully engraved brass face, played seven different tunes, one for each day of the week. This was accomplished by a complicated installation of 13 bells and 18 hammers. The names of the airs were engraved on the face, as were mottos in Latin and images of Greek gods representing the sun, moon and planets. Above the dial, Fisher installed an orrery to show movements of the heavenly bodies.