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The Luxury of Time: Clocks from 1500-1800

Some of history’s most significant British timepieces dating from 1500 to 1800 are on display on the Isle of Man in a new Luxury of Time exhibition, made possible thanks to the generosity of the philanthropist Dr John C Taylor OBE.  The stunning spectacle showing the golden age of clock and watch making will be on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas from Saturday 15 February  2020 until Sunday 10 May 2020.

The exhibition features 30 different outstandingly beautiful timepieces, including a gothic lantern clock, made by blacksmiths (from 1500) plus majestic clocks and exquisite watches. We take a look at a selection of those timepieces:

Images by kind permission of Dr John C Taylor OBE and The John C Taylor Collection Limited

Gilt and silver table clock signed Edward East and Ahasuerus Fromanteel, London, c1625-55

The 17th century was a golden age of innovation in British clock and watch making. At the start of the century, clocks and watches were inaccurate timekeepers and usually only had an hour hand. The word ‘clock’ was only used for mechanisms which struck bells to mark the passing of time.

The finest timepieces had complicated mechanisms that showed the hour and also the date and astronomical data. These were luxury items for the very wealthy. Some were worn as jewellery, while others were displayed as ornaments or technical toys.

Two inventions revolutionised mechanical timekeeping. The first, invented in 1656 by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, was the pendulum clock. It meant clocks could be made accurate to the minute, then to seconds. The second was the balance spring. From around 1675, it improved the accuracy of watches. Both Huygens and the British scientist Robert Hooke claimed this invention. A high quality timepiece was now expected to keep good time.

Dr John Taylor OBE FREng

Clocks from 1500-1800

From The Collection of Dr John Taylor OBE FREng

“It’s impossible to imagine a world without clocks, and that is why horology has always fascinated me”.

Dr John Taylor OBE FREng is one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific inventors. In fact, it’s him you should thank for the thermostat control that switches off your kettle every time you make a cup of tea.

We also would like to thank him for the generous loan of these exquisite timepieces from his world class collection of early modern English Clocks, some of which have just returned to the Island from display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Dr Taylor’s passion for horology was inspired by watching his father, Eric Taylor, fix clocks at the kitchen table and his keen interest in aviation, particularly his experience as a pilot. It was his decision to fly his own plane across the North Magnetic Pole to Japan that got him thinking about the challenges of navigating the oceans. This led him to the work of the early 18th century clockmaker John Harrison, who famously solved the problem of Longitude by creating a reliable clock that could keep time at sea. Harrison is one of Dr Taylor’s heroes.

Despite early struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia, Dr Taylor studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and went on to found and run several manufacturing businesses, for which he was awarded four Queen’s Awards, three for Export and one for Innovation. He has always been driven by a desire to solve problems and leave the world a better place. His ability to think in three dimensions combined with his natural curiosity about how things are made and could be improved have made him a successful businessman, inventor and entrepreneur.

This special exhibition explores the history and intricate beauty of rare timepieces from the golden age of British clockmaking.

Lantern clock signed John Knibb, Oxford, 1669

Mechanising time

Many of the earliest known clockmakers in Britain were immigrants from continental Europe. Some were escaping religious intolerance, others came for commercial opportunities. They passed skills and knowledge on to local craftsmen who developed distinctive British clock styles. From the 17th century onward, London became one of the major centres for clock making.

The brass lantern clock is a British design from shortly after 1650. They were the first domestic clocks to be made in considerable numbers. The cast brass pieces were often commissioned or bought from a brass foundry, which sometimes supplied several clockmakers with identical parts. Brass cost more than the iron it replaced, but was easier and faster to work with. A clock could now be made in a few weeks. This design of clock became an affordable luxury for a prosperous merchant or farmer.

James VI & I watch signed David Ramsay, London, c1618

Courting time

In 1631 the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was established. The first Master was David Ramsay, a Scot who had learned clock making in France.

Previously, London clockmakers had belonged to many different guilds or companies. These organisations authorised trade in the city, regulated apprenticeships and controlled the quality of goods. Sometimes craftsmen worked in a field different to the guild they belonged to.

Membership could be passed down to a son or widow, or acquired through apprenticeship and purchase following an examination of the candidate’s skill.

While clockmakers were happy to accept the guilds’ protection of their businesses, preventing outsiders and non-members from selling within London, they also looked for ways around restrictions the guild placed on their work. Some set up workshops in areas outside the control of the guilds or would subcontract work to people who were not members.

Seen during winding, the underside of the gilt and silver table clock signed Edward East and Ahasuerus Fromanteel, London, c1625-55

Making time

Clock making required a knowledge of mechanics, mathematical ability to design the mechanisms, and the metalworking skill to make them. A clockmaker needed to have good financial sense to run their own business. Many started out working for other makers. The small scale of watches was a particular challenge to make and required good eyesight, filing each miniscule tooth of the gears by hand. Watchmakers could make clocks, but not all clockmakers were capable of making watches.

Edward East (1602-1696) and Ahasuerus Fromanteel (1607-1693) were pioneers of clock mechanism design in mid-17th century London. The quality and variety of their clocks and watches show the scope of their abilities. Edward East became the second master of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1645. In 1658 Fromanteel was summoned by the Company for having signed up more apprentices than permitted.

Quarter chiming repeating watch no 144 signed Tompion, London, 1697

Production time

Thomas Tompion (1639-1713) was the first maker to mass produce high quality watches. His workshop made about 5000 watches and 650 clocks – so many that watches were sometimes called ‘Tompions’. From the early 1680s he used serial numbers to keep track of his output.

In 1695 he had 14 apprentices living in his household. He also subcontracted making parts and whole movements to other makers which were finished in his workshops. Tompion was one of the first watchmakers to use machines to make the gears and other components of watches and clocks, rather than just hand tools.

The Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, tested a new watch mechanism made by Tompion in 1675. He found it kept time to a minute a day but complained that the latches had been filed off so he could not inspect the mechanism.

Inside the back cover of the chaise clock-watch by Edward East, London, c 1660

Clocks and watches show beautiful precision design and craftsmanship. Some parts of the mechanism are revealed on the back.

1. A key would be used to wind the mainspring daily to power the clock
2. The striking mechanism has a separate spring, wound here
3. The thick tooth stops the striking being overwound
4. The count wheel controls the striking
5. The balance wheel swings back and forth to control the speed of the clock, protected by the ornate balance cock
6. These gears were used to adjust the tension of the mainspring

This watch was made by David Ramsay who learnt high quality metalworking skills during a seven year apprenticeship to a gunsmith and Royal Armourer in St Andrews, Fife. He went on to learn clockmaking skills in France and employed French workers in Britain.

The portrait of James VI & I and the Royal Coat of Arms suggest a watch commissioned by the King as a gift. The back cover of the watch would have been opened twice a day for winding.

The worn covers are engraved with scenes from the classical poem Ovid’s Metamorphose. The engraving on the watch has been filled with red and black wax to give contrasting colours.

Case decoration details by Ishmael Parbury for movement by George Graham, London, 1733-4

Ishmael Parbury was a leading embosser, or chaser, of watch cases in the first half of the 18th century. Following the death of his father, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital.

The allegorical image above shows Britannia and Father Time.

Four details round the edges show instruments for time measurement, navigation, surveying and astronomy. These were perhaps copied from trade cards.

Most fine clocks and watches were signed, either on the mechanism or on the dial. The signatures themselves were usually put on by an engraver, so the same maker’s name can appear in different handwritings, and even different spellings.

This table clock is uniquely signed by both Edward East and Ahasuerus Fromanteel, two of the great names of 17th century British clock making. East signed the plate first, before the brass was gilded, with Fromanteel’s signature added afterwards.

Tompion watch number 144 with outer case, London, 1697

Thomas Tompion has been called the father of British clock making. He was an outstanding businessman, responsible for the manufacture of large numbers of high quality clocks and particularly watches. He is shown in the portrait below holding one of his watch mechanisms.

Thomas Tompion, English clock and watchmaker, c 1700s

In use, a watch movement would have been protected within two or even three cases: an inner dust case, a more ornate case and then a protective outer case such as this leather one.

The Luxury of Time is on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas from Saturday 15 February  2020 until Sunday 10 May 2020. It is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM with free admission.