At Attingham we are lucky to have some splendid examples of timepieces with elaborate decoration and captivating chimes. Many of our showrooms clocks are fine examples of Empire/Regency neoclassical styling. They were the epitome of fashion in the latter part of the 18th century and the early to mid-19th century with their Ancient Greek and Roman influenced mythology and architecture. In Napoleon’s France and Regency Britain such objects displayed to all that these nations were the great empires of the world following in the steps of their classical predecessors.
These clocks are mostly bronze coated with a thin layer of gold, which if handled too often would wear away. This is known as ormolu and is applied in a process using mercury to bind the gold to the bronze. This process involves the evaporation of the mercury, which is so toxic that many of the workers involved died before the age of forty. Thankfully, electroplating is now used.
Writing this blog made me think about the meaning of time related words, so I thought I might include a few here. Horology – the study of the movement of time, stems from the Latin ‘hora’ meaning hour/time, the word clock comes from ‘clocca’ which is the Medieval Latin for bell, and the Ancient Greek water clock, Klepsydra, amusingly translates as water thief and was used to time the speeches of judicial trails.
Whilst in the midst of writing, Caroline, our House Steward, mentioned to me that there was once a rather peculiar ‘clock tax’. It came into legislation thanks to Prime Minister William Pitt in 1797 but proved so unpopular it was repealed just nine months later – unlike the equally unpopular window tax, which lasted over a hundred years, and whose effect can still be seen in many bricked-up windows throughout Britain today.
During my role as part of the Conservation team at Attingham I have occasionally helped with the winding of our clocks which takes place weekly as most of them have an eight-day movement. This has blossomed a particular interest and passion within me for them. After all, these hard working objets d’art have been custodians of time for, in some cases, over two hundred years.
We have a dedicated folder which records on a weekly basis not only the date and time of winding but also the accuracy of the clock’s movements. This folder is also used to note any adjustments that been carried out such as altering the counterbalance of the pendulum to either speed up or slow down the clock’s movement. This is sometimes the result of atmospheric expansion or contraction of the intricate metal parts. These records are vital to the conservation of our clocks and help us become aware of any problems that may need special attention.
All of our clock winding/maintenance keys and equipment are kept in a tool box along with a pony-haired brush which is used to gently remove one of our greatest enemies – accumulated dust. Before we attempt any work on the clocks we put on powder-free latex or nitrile gloves as these essential necessities protect our timepieces from dirt and sweat which can easily damage the surface of the clocks.
Some of the more delicate ones in the showrooms have a pendulum suspended from a single thread of silk and to stop these before winding we use a slim wooden cylindrical stick. This stick is also used when we need to move the hands of some of the clocks as using fingers on the small and ornate ones could potentially damage them. The clocks in the basement are much more robust, especially the longcase ones, and take some cranking to raise their heavy weights in preparation for the week ahead.
There will be a specialist clock conservator visiting Attingham in August who will be giving our hard-working timepieces a full check-up so that they can continue their important and much-loved role of greeting our visitors with their charming chimes.
Hopefully, this blog has inspired you to find out more about the clocks at Attingham and those in the care of the National Trust. If so, then the National Trust Collections website is a great place to find lots of examples.