Time in the 18th century library: 9:55.
Real time: 9:56 a.m.
Jacqueline Dugas unhooks the velvet rope and tiptoes around the Louis XIV carpet to Philibert Pont St. Michel. Philibert's lilting voice floats through the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino--the same voice that told time in Napoleon's day. Marble, bronze and gilt, flanked by the perfection of two Sevres mantle vases, the clock has a haughty, regal air. It would surely loathe the fact that it strikes the hour a minute late.
But here is Dugas to set Philibert right, with the turn of an antique key. Twice a week, Dugas winds the gallery's 16 antique clocks. Sometimes, she comes in on her days off to wind the clocks. She schedules vacations around them. Just so people can feel the pulse of the 18th and 19th centuries in their movement.
She worries that Guydamour runs fast, that Grandfather is cranky, that the Cronier gets overlooked because it has the misfortune of sitting under a Rembrandt. She is anxious about their health and strokes their cases only with her fingertips. With a few clocks, she holds her breath until she lifts their plexiglass cases and hears their heartbeats. Then she goes back to work.
Dugas' job at the Huntington has nothing to do with clocks.
On most days, she handles mountains of paperwork on a roll-top desk in a busy reception area. As the museum's registrar, she tracks each piece of art in the collection. She will record the movement of an 18th century Wedgwood tureen from one case to another or fax the humidity reading of a room to Windsor Castle curators who want to check on a loaned exhibition.
Dugas, who is in her 40s, sometimes throws back her head for effect, tossing the red hair that tumbles past her shoulders onto a dress or suit jacket. Her speech is warm and musical, her sentences full of parentheses and exclamation points. She doesn't wear her watch because it feels clunky around her wrist.
Walking through the nine rooms that house the clocks, she pursues lengthy asides on French ribbon and Andrew Lloyd Webber. No clock story is too small to recount: On this clock, the cupid used to hold an arrow! And no misbehaving clock ever gets more than a soft reprimand from her: Now, sweetie. . . .
"The clocks make the galleries come alive," she says. "I just think they add to the spirit and soul of the place."
Every time Dugas winds a clock at the Huntington, she is taking sides in a fierce but arcane debate. Among horologists--the scholarly term for clock experts--the world is deeply divided between those who believe in winding or not winding.
Dugas is no horologist. Horologists turn grave, not gooey, when talk turns to ticking clocks.
It is important to preserve the original guts of a clock and to avoid the strain of motion, says Gillian Wilson, curator of decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. You put an antique clock at risk by keeping it oiled and running. What if dust sticks to the oil and gunks up the gears? What if a pendulum snaps off a silk thread?
No, no, no. The clocks were made to run and will waste away if they don't, insists horologist Thomas Bartels, executive director of the National Assn. of Watch and Clock Collectors in Columbia, Pa.
Hearst Castle does not wind its two antique clocks, which are kept in plexiglass cases.
But at Mount Vernon, the mantle clock still runs in the bedroom where George Washington died in 1799.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, on the other hand, does not run its 21 antique clocks.
At the American Clock & Watch Museum, about 50 of 1,500 display clocks keep time. Small children, the curators say, sometimes wonder how a clock runs without a battery or electricity.
At the Huntington, most of the clocks sit on mantles or French tables--and they have always ticked. They give the place a homey feel, says Shelley Bennett, the museum's curator of British and Continental art.
In the Huntington Art Gallery one afternoon, Roy Wood, 72, stops in front of an English clock from the early 1800s. Wood, of West Covina, wears shorts and tennis shoes, and a camera dangles around his neck.
He looks at the clock; he looks at his watch. The antique clock says 2:45; his Seiko digital says 2:46. He cannot believe it.
"I think," he says, "they slipped some quartz in the back."
Time in the 18th century sitting room: 4:35.
Real time: 4:30 p.m.
At first, Dugas was scared to touch the clocks. Clocks signed horloger du roi, or clockmaker to the king; rococo clocks with delicate leaves and tendrils and marble; a clock believed to be from the collection of Marie Antoinette.
Even though she received her bachelor and master's degrees in art history from UC Santa Barbara, she had no training in antique clocks. In fact, she had no particular love for the Huntington's clocks when, eight years ago, she asked to take over the task of winding them from a departing exhibits preparator. She saw it as a way to get into the gallery, the way she used to do as a kid.