Obituaries: Winthrop Edey

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The Independent Culture
WEALTHY ECCENTRICS are as rare in America as they are commonplace in Europe; a Puritan culture ensures that even the best endowed remain workers rather than playboys. Winthrop Edey, however, was an exemplar of the Manhattan eccentric who, like many so labelled, was also vastly learned.

Edey's expertise was in antique clocks and watches, and he was a nonpareil scholar and collector. The family funds which bankrolled his exceptional collection removed Edey from the obligations of academic tenure, museum directorship or auction-house employment, any of which could have been his for the asking.

His middle initial, K, honoured his grandfather Morris Kellogg, who had won gargantuan sums of money designing oil refineries and America's atomic- bomb plants. Edey was known as "Kelly", a diminutive of the very Kellogg which had made his life of leisure and connoisseurship possible. Kellogg's daughter, Edey's mother, a mainstay of the Association for Voluntary Surgical Contraception, set up the first outpatient vasectomy clinic. Edey himself grew up on Long Island, attended Amherst College and the Institute of Fine Arts in New York.

He was equally knowledgeable about ancient Egypt, 18th-century literature and the history and practice of photography. His social set included as many louche avant-gardists as elderly timepiece dealers, queens of the New York night along with antiquarians. He knew the notorious Robert Mapplethorpe; Andy Warhol included him in his 40-minute black-and-white silent film The 13 Most Beautiful Boys. This was in 1964, the same year Warhol's painting The 13 Most Wanted Men was removed from the New York World's Fair.

Edey was a man of habit, not just that of collecting. He maintained an impeccable townhouse on the Upper West Side exactly as it had been in the late 19th century, including working gas jets. He used to stroll in Central Park wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, short black socks and brown wingtips. He awoke at precisely five in the afternoon.

At night he worked on his clocks and his diary, an obsessive task which had occupied him since the age of six. This massive, many-volumed work covering more than 50 years promises to be a revelatory document and even a potential best- seller, covering everything from downtown 1960s Bohemia to travels of 19th-century leisureliness. Edey took with him a large and ancient camera; his interest in photography included taking his own old-fashioned images as well as collecting Man Ray.

A hint of Edey's impeccably recherche prose can be gained from the two books published in his lifetime. French Clocks (1967) was one of the first books in English on the subject:

A knowledge of French clock-making involves the study of many different subjects: cabinetmaking, bronze-casting, the manufacture of machinery, the evolution of theories of time, sculpture, even porcelain, the composition of metals, and some astronomy.

This slim collector's guide also carries several plates of such rare clocks from his own collection as a Green Horn wall bracket by Gille Laine from 1745, a Tete de Poupee by Balthazar Martinot from 1680 and a Pendule Religieuse by Gosselin from 1660.

In 1982 the Frick Collection mounted the first important exhibition of French clocks in the United States. Edey was the guest curator and nine of the finest works were from his collection, though his name was modestly omitted from the list of lenders. It is to the Frick that Edey has left 39 pieces from his collection of around 60 clocks and watches, a donation of incomparable magnitude, as well as his diary. In the book of the Frick show, French Clocks in American Collections, Edey demonstrated his taste in prose as well as timepieces:

After the Revolution, clock cases were less often worthy of the best movements, and less often the carefree sumptuous objects that they had been. They gradually lost the fabled sweetness of the ancien regime, taking on in its place a harsh chill.

Elsewhere in this essay, Edey's words could serve as his own epitaph:

Thus the market was much reduced, and a certain spirit of taste was killed, a taste that had taken centuries of increasingly refined living to develop.

Adrian Dannatt

Winthrop Kellogg Edey, clock collector and diarist: born New York 18 June 1937; died New York 22 February 1999.