When Robert Cheney was six years old, he made his first visit to the rural homestead in Grafton, Massachusetts, where members of the famed Willard family first began making clocks. Privately owned and seriously run down, the home and workshop were endangered. Robert’s father, clockmaker Bradford W. Cheney, was hoping that this historic horological site would not be lost forever. He tried unsuccessfully to have the entire building moved to Old Sturbridge Village.
As little Robert entered the room where the Willard brothers learned their craft, he plunged through the rotted floorboards, down to the scary cellar below. Only a bit battered, he emerged with a powerful memory that he carries with him to this day, 60 years later, as he takes on the job of executive director and curator of the Willard House & Clock Museum. The home and shop still stand, back in fine shape, on the original plot. He claims that this is the only 18th-century clock shop remaining where it was built.
The road to what he calls his “dream job” seems perfectly planned, in retrospect. From those early days as a young boy learning the trade from his father, he had a strong foundation in clock repair. After graduating in 1974 from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he earned a political science degree, he moved to Grafton to return to professional horology. During a recent tour with him of that lovely old town in southern Massachusetts, I saw the subdivided Victorian home where he had occupied first-floor apartments.
He soon felt that cleaning, bushing, and polishing everyday clock movements for customers passed along from his father was not sufficiently satisfying. With Bradford’s blessings, he advanced to higher-level conservation and consulting work, principally for museums and better private collections. That was the beginning of his many associations with museums with horological collections, including Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1977 he became the conservator of clocks, winding more than 100 every week and servicing them as budgets allowed. Other institutional clients were Historic Deerfield, the Worcester Art Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, Concord (Massachusetts) Museum, American Antiquarian Society, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and more.
A few years ago, while I was researching at Historic Deerfield, I came across a nice example of his work, a 1984 lengthy and detailed “Conservation Report” he had prepared for an unsigned dwarf clock in Deerfield’s collection. I first met him shortly after the publication of his 1992 book coauthored with Philip Zea, who now is president of Historic Deerfield. He and Zea were doing a presentation based on that publication, Clock Making in New England, 1725-1825: An Interpretation of the Old Sturbridge Village Collection, and my copy is signed by them both. At that talk, I wrote down Robert’s opening admonition to himself and all other speakers to “be brief, be bright, and be gone,” advice I try to keep in mind.
As Robert related to me during a day I spent with him recently in his upstairs office at the Willard House, he began to realize during those early years of conservation work that it was not sufficiently profitable, despite his expertise and the importance of his clients. He began buying and selling good clocks, which he already was beginning to collect himself, especially “vernacular” ones handcrafted in preindustrial New England. He sought out rare pieces by makers such as Mulliken, Blaisdel, and Richard Manning, in the best original form and condition, many of which had posted-frame movements and just one hand. He became a strong auction bidder, and for a time he held the record for the most money paid for a clock at public auction for an American tall-case clock. He also included important 17th- and early 18th-century English clocks in his inventory, and he was expert not just on movements but on their decorative wood cases and surfaces.
He received a National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) Fellow Award, and his life of conserving, consulting, and dealing proceeded successfully until 2006 when, like other antiques dealers, he began noticing and experiencing a downturn in the market. Sales to institutions and collectors slowed, and more of the action was turning to the auction houses, a situation even more pronounced today. So during that year he took what was his first “real” job as head of the clocks department at Skinner, the major auction firm based in Marlborough, Massachusetts. I recall greeting him soon after his appointment at a Skinner auction preview in Boston, where he waved his freshly acquired health insurance card at me, announcing that it was the first one he had ever possessed. That card, and the regular paychecks, offered stability he had not known in his decades of sole-proprietorship when, as he told me, “Every day I started from scratch.”
While at Skinner his department that had expanded to watches and scientific instruments was quite successful and established several price records. Rare clocks by William Bond, Charles Fasoldt, and E. Howard were among those sold from expertly produced catalogs. He appeared many times on the PBS Antiques Roadshow. Sadly, however, it also was the time when cancer would first afflict him, leading to six years of intense treatments, which finally eradicated the disease but left him scarred and still struggling with periodic serious pain from damaged facial nerves and muscles. By 2017 he needed to end the Skinner job after his final sale on April 28. The department continues under the care of his former assistant Jonathan Dowling.
Not ready for true retirement, Robert returned to consulting and advising, and he also cataloged and auctioneered for the October 2017 sale by R.O. Schmitt in Manchester, New Hampshire. But during all those past years, and up to that time, his connections to museums were ongoing, including service on the boards of the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut. At those places, he earned a reputation for being straightforward, assertive, and even combative when he felt it necessary to promote good ideas and resist bad ones.
Most relevant was his longtime association with the Willard House and its Grafton founders, cardiologist Dr. Roger W. Robinson and his wife, Imogene. Robert was an early and active participant in the Robinsons’ 1969 establishment of the museum, first sparked by Bradford Cheney’s sale to them of a Simon Willard brass-dial clock made in Grafton. This clock is illustrated and described on pages 8 and 9 of a classic 1972 reference, Horology Americana by Lester Dworetsky and Robert Dickstein. Bradford Cheney also convinced the Robinsons to buy the Willard property, starting them on their decades-long Willard mission. In 1996 the NAWCC published a detailed hardcover book about the museum, The Willard House and Clock Museum and The Willard Family Clockmakers, written by Dr. Robinson and Herschel B. Burt. Many of the collection’s most important clocks are pictured and described in its 262 pages.
As the Robinsons bought, generously restored, and enhanced the property, adding wings and structures for gallery space and lodging for resident staff, Robert was present. He also advised and assisted them on further acquisitions, which have brought the collection of more than 85 Willard clocks to world-class status. Both Robinsons lived more than 100 years but now are gone. Relations between the Robinsons and Robert soured after the publication of Cheney’s 2000 groundbreaking article in The Magazine Antiques, which introduced his thesis that Willard-signed clocks, especially later Boston examples, have English-made complete movements or ones assembled from British brass and steel parts. Robert continues to lecture on this subject, making a strong case with substantial evidence that many Willard clocks were not handcrafted in Grafton or Roxbury. This does not appear to offend two Robinson family members actively involved on the current board, son Lee Robinson and granddaughter Jane Robinson.
In the fall of 2017 the former director of the museum departed after seven years, and the board, of which Robert remained a member, turned to him as a logical and excellent candidate. For the Willard House, there is no question that Cheney’s history of work with more than 35 other museums, and his experience, connections, and passion for the Willards and their museum, all exceed the necessary qualifications.
For his success, perseverance, and victory over cancer, Robert gives much credit to Denise Johnson, the love of his life for the past 26 years. She continues her administrative job at Skinner, and on May 13, 2017, they were married by a justice of the peace in the backyard of their antique home in Brimfield, Massachusetts.
Cheney’s job at the Willard House will be full time and probably more. Not only will he need to devote many hours to fund-raising, as is usual for heads of nonprofits, but he will oversee an important 18th-century landmark, a building full of rare clocks—including the only known Willard musical clock—and artifacts such as the original Simon Willard document for his “patent timepiece,” signed by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He hopes to greet increasing numbers of visitors and to exceed the goals that he and the board agree are needed to preserve and enhance this hallowed place where the Willard clockmaking story began.
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest