Jacqueline Duncan OBE on collectors, collecting and the Mostyn Reception at the British Museum at which the renowned clock has its annual winding.
Contemporary interior designers today show a marked disinterest in the use and beauty of antiques; I begin to wonder if the antique market will be saved by the enthusiasm of the Collector.
This was brought particularly to my attention on 23rd February 2017 when I was privileged to be invited to the annual winding of the Mostyn Tompion, now a prized feature of the British Museum’s spectacular Clock Collection. Probably now the finest horological collection in the world, a major part of it was formed by engineer Courtenay Ilbert and acquired by the Museum in 1957 on Ilbert’s death.
“There are plenty of people who still enjoy the challenge of acquisition.”
Collectors fall into categories, but they share a single minded passion for their specific interest, whether it be diamonds from Golconda or pottery shards from Troy. In Courtenay’s case he was intrigued enough to purchase a tray of watch parts in a jewellers’ closing down sale in order to see what he could make of them. Within the week it is said that he had restored the muddle into three watches; at the time he was still at public school, aged about 13. Childish fascination turned into obsession and he was to pursue his accumulation of items concerned with the measurement of time until he died in 1956. A qualified engineer, he remained committed to the mechanics of his clocks and watches: the cosmetic grandeur of jewelled watches and wondrous clock cases was of secondary importance.
“Collectors share a single minded passion for their specific interest.”
On one occasion in 1910, buying a newspaper in a booth in Piccadilly, he saw a new watch for sale for 2/6d. He bought it, pointing out later that he didn’t think that finance and manufacturing would ever again so coincide as to produce a very complicated product at such a very modest price. The cheap Piccadilly watch shares space with, among many hundreds of examples, James II’s personal pocket watch, a spectacular clock by Nicholas Vallinn, clockmaker to Elizabeth I and the smallest Tompion known, devised for travelling with its own travelling case in the age of carriages.
It was always the ingenuity that held him spellbound, rather than the cosmetic or associated appeal and this is a collection that represents an international review of the measurement of time. It is easy to say that there is less opportunity for collectors like Ilbert, but this is really not true and there are plenty of well informed people who still enjoy the challenge of acquisition.
The Mostyn Tompion is a year going spring driven table clock made by Thomas Tompion, known as the Father of English Clockmaking. Created for the Coronation of William III in 1689, it remained in the King’s bedroom until his death.
Guests at the Mostyn Reception in the Museum are allowed to turn the key once to augment the annual winding ceremony, and with other (and with great caution) I did just that on February 23rd. If the Museum holds its next reception later than February 2018, Mr Tompion’s clock will still run on beyond its stated 12 month cycle.
Not at all bad for a clock created nearly 350 years ago.