Following extensive repairs, ground breaking conservation and an amazing discovery, one of the most spectacular clocks in the National Trust’s collection is returning to Anglesey Abbey after an absence of almost 3 years.
National Trust conservator, Chris Calnan, has been looking forward to its return for some time…
The clock in question was made in London by James Cox in the early 1790s. He was one of the foremost clock makers of his time, making very elaborate automata clocks, many of which were exported to China.
Shaped like a Chinese pagoda, the Pagoda Clock is unusual in that when it strikes 12 and 3 o’clock a wonderful musical and visual display occurs. It’s quite the sight, there are musical chimes sounding and jewelled flowers on the different tiers of the pagoda that spin and open up.
The clock was originally sent away to West Dean College in Sussex to be cleaned, but a detailed inspection revealed that it was in a perilous state. Previous poor restoration work by clocksmiths meant that the clock was damaging its gears every time it ran and the main spring for the musical chimes was at a point where it could have snapped at any moment, which could have caused irreparable damage.
Photo: West Dean student, Brittany Cox, working on the clock.
Faced with the prospect of a major programme of replacement work and intervention, we took the bold decision that it would be better for the long term conservation of the clock to remove and retire the movement and replace it with an electronic drive, which would be fully reversible.
The barrel pins that produced the musical chimes were also in a very poor condition, so a similar conservation approach was taken with them. We had the musical chimes digitally recorded with state of the art recording equipment to enable us to play the chimes without causing further wear to the clock. The most time consuming task, was then to devise an electric mechanism that would synchronise the striking of the clock with the playing of the musical chimes and the motion of the moving parts.
This is ground-breaking conservation, as this is the first clock in the country to have its mechanical components driving time, as wells as chimes and movement replaced with an electronic drive and digital recording.
Photo: The Pagoda Clock at West Dean College being recorded by John Leonard to digitally replace the mechanical chimes.
The story doesn’t end there, whilst working on the clock, an exciting discovery was made.
The jewelled panels around the base of the clock were found to have small strips of paper wedged on their insides to prevent movement. On opening up the paper wedges we discovered that they were strips torn from Chinese newsprint from the latter half of the 19th century. We’re hoping to carry out further research on the newsprint fragments to try to discover their date, but it suggests that the clock may have once had an illustrious past.
The tantalising evidence of the Chinese newsprint found inside, may suggest that it once belonged to the Emperor of China. The Emperor amassed a vast collection of these highly prized clocks, which were gifts from European countries intent on opening up trade with China. The Chinese referred to these clocks as ziming zhong, meaning ‘sing songs’.
It’s thought that the collection amassed by the Quing dynasty Emperors by the early 19th century amounted to over 4,500 clocks, of which 1,500 remain in the collection inside the Forbidden City. Quite how this clock came to the West would be a great story to uncover.
See the Pagoda Clock for yourself, as it goes back on display at Anglesey Abbey this week, just in time for when the clocks change!