The Golden Age of Clockmaking

A late 17th century red tortoiseshell veneered bracket clock, by John Cotsworth of London

The late 17th century saw a revolution in English horology with huge leaps forward in science and technology. The invention of the pendulum and the verge escapement transformed the accuracy of mechanical time keeping. This period has become known as the golden age of English clockmaking.

The introduction of the pendulum shortly after 1650 has been described as ‘the greatest event in the history of horology’. A pendulum has a definite period of swing and gives a repeated unit of time whilst regulating the rotation of a clock’s spring or weight driven wheels.

It was Galileo who first discovered the isochronous properties of the pendulum in 1581. The pendulum clock was invented by the great Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and patented in 1656. In 1657 he assigned the rights to his invention to Saloman Coster, a clock maker from the Hague. John Fromanteel, a member of the famous London family of clockmakers of Dutch descent, worked with Coster in Holland between 1657 and 1658 and introduced the technology to England upon his return.

The introduction of the pendulum clock to England coincided almost exactly with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Charles was a great patron of the arts and returned from the Continent with a taste for the finest art, clocks and objects in contrast to the austerity of the Puritan period which preceded him. England’s new found and rising wealth led to a growing demand for this new fashion and taste.

The Great Fire of London added to this demand as vast numbers of houses were rebuilt and refurbished. And this was the age of Sir Isaac Newton with Britain taking a leading role in the pursuit of science.

A late 17th century ebonized bracket clock, by John Cotton of London

The combination of Royal patronage, rising wealth, science and an increasingly international maritime outlook produced an outstanding generation of clockmakers which included Thomas Tompion, regarded as the ‘Father of English clockmaking’, Edward East, watchmaker and clockmaker to Charles I, Daniel Quare, and Joseph Knibb, who has been described as ‘next to Tompion…the greatest horologist of his time’. The demand for clocks remained strong into the late 17th and 18th century with other clockmakers working alongside them.
The late 17th century red tortoiseshell and ebonized bracket clocks you see here by John Cotsworth and John Cotton are fine examples and sold at Toovey’s for £6400 and £5000 respectively.

Both clocks had eight day twin fusee movements with verge escapements, finely engraved and signed back plates, and square brass dials with Roman hour numerals and Arabic minutes. The red tortoiseshell and ebonized architectural cases with their cushion-moulded tops and brass handles are typical of the period. There is much to celebrate in the quality of their mechanisms and their cases.

Interestingly John Cotsworth (sometimes Cossworth) is recorded as a London clockmaker, born in 1637. He was apprenticed to Jeremy Gregory and made free of the Clockmakers Company in 1669 to 1702. Cotsworth died in 1732, described as ‘aged near 100, formerly a watchmaker in Fleet Street and the oldest inhabitant of St. Dunstan’s Parish’. John Cotton is recorded as a London clockmaker, apprenticed in 1683, he was made free of the Clockmakers Company in 1695 to 1697.

Clocks remain one of the strongest collectors’ fields combining the skill of the clockmaker with that of the cabinet maker. These fine horological instruments give us a sense of our place in the procession of time and history – it is easy to understand their appeal.

Image 1: A late 17th century red tortoiseshell veneered bracket clock, by John Cotsworth of London.
Image 2: A late 17th century ebonized bracket clock, by John Cotton of London.


John Hitchens – Aspects of Landscape

Artist John Hitchens in his Sussex studio © Anne-Katrin Purkiss

Nothing can prepare you for the scale, drama and beauty of John Hitchens’ work in the opening rooms of this important retrospective exhibition Aspects of Landscape at Southampton City Art Gallery.

Born in 1940 John Hitchens has spent most of his life living in the Sussex landscape which continues to inspire him. The retrospective coincides with the artist’s 80th birthday.

The exhibition begins in an intimate room displaying painted stones and sculpture. It adds to the sense of drama as you enter the first of the main galleries. Seven paintings of extraordinary scale explore the landscape one informing the other. A clump of naturalistic, abstract, hewn vertical landscapes create a layered perspective uniting the works and gifting the viewer with a sense of inhabiting, of being present in a landscape.

The views from Duncton Hill, a period of aerial photography over the South Downs and a love of maps with their contours were the catalysts for these increasingly abstract landscapes from the last twenty years. Forms are reduced to a series of lines, dots, circles and patterns which provide motifs for the shapes created by ploughing and harvesting. Stubble was the origin of the dots and the black areas in the compositions recall burnt stubble, a sight no longer part of our landscape. Many of the pictures are textural, the earth hues painted on a base of sieved sawdust bound together with PVA. As you stop and stare subtle details reveal themselves. They reflect our human relationship with the land and our influence on the landscape.

The chronology of this beautiful and imaginative show works in reverse. We progress back through the years discovering each phase of this important artist’s oeuvre until we arrive at the beginning and his more representational paintings. Throughout his career John has often renewed his exploration in art by putting to one side those things which have been central to his work, brushwork, the relationship of the sky to the land, in order to develop and evolve his artistic voice and creativity. Although these points of decisive change can appear revolutionary this is a processional artist whose art remains about the landscape he is rooted in.

His early work was painted en plein air but today John works in his studio giving voice to the unspoken conversations between found objects, nature, the landscape and music in his art.

John Hitchens has described how, in order to move forward, he got rid of the skyline by ‘tipping the land up’.

John Hitchens’ prodigious creativity is born out of a generous discipline of ‘looking quietly’. He describes painting as a ‘calling’. His artistic practice is driven by both curiosity and delight in the familiar woods, fields, coast and Downs of Sussex. His life and art lend credence to the truth that you can journey far by remaining in the same place.

Our thanks must go to the artist John Hitchens and Dan Matthews, together with his team at Southampton City Art Gallery, for this exceptional show.
Rarely has a body of art, an exhibition, moved me so deeply.

John Hitchens – Aspects of Landscape is this summer’s must see show and has been extended until 3rd October 2020. To find out more and to book your free tickets visit

Rare Martin Brothers Tortoise Emerges from Hibernation

A large, rare Martin Brothers stoneware model of a grotesque tortoise, dated March 1904

Tortoises have always had a special place in my heart so imagine my excitement when I discovered an earthenware tortoise by the important Victorian Art Potters Martin Brothers whilst on a routine valuation in Cranleigh just a few weeks ago.

One of my earliest memories of tortoises is from visiting my Great-Grandpa Edwin and his second wife Aunty Millie as a young boy. It was always rather a formal visit so my brother and I would escape into Aunty Millie’s beautiful and extensive gardens as soon as we could and hide in the herbaceous borders. We would lie down hidden from view and watch the clouds pass overhead whilst we ate wild strawberries. Aunty Millie had large, old tortoises and as we lay there we could hear them munching their way noisily towards us.

In the sitting room of this Cranleigh cottage my eye was caught by the earthenware tortoise sitting nonchalantly beside a brick fireplace on the tile hearth between the coal bucket and grate. As I made my way excitedly towards it the family, surprised at my interest, recounted how their mother had rescued it from the garden decades before.

Robert Wallace Martin started by setting up a studio for the production of salt-glazed stoneware in Fulham in 1873, moving to larger premises at Norwood Green, Southall in 1877. He worked with his brothers Charles, Walter and Edwin.
The prevailing style at the time was Gothic Revival and they produced objects with an almost medieval vitality. The brothers worked in close collaboration predominately using salt glazes with a subdued palette. Their handmade work stood against the tide of the Victorian Industrial Age giving expression to the aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Like the work of the famous contemporary designer Christopher Dresser their designs were often anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and naturalistic. The atmosphere of connoisseurship which they engendered at their Brown Street shop in Holborn was celebrated by patrons and critics alike. The brothers certainly considered themselves as artists and took part in what has been described as the ‘eclecticism of the late Victorian period’.

Their work found favour and was collected by the Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Queen Mary ordered sixty pieces of Martinware to be exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1914.
Robert Wallace Martin had worked for the architectural sculptor J B Phillips and attended the Lambeth School of Art in his formative years. In 1879/1880 he began to model their grotesque creatures. Often the faces of these creatures, especially their hugely sought after ‘Wally Birds’, were caricatures of contemporary political and establishment figures.

Since the 1920s Martinware has always attracted strong interest from collectors at auction. The rather marvellous Martin Brothers tortoise you see here dates from March 1904. Its face has a human quality and a mischievous grin, the eyes follow the viewer. Its shell is beautifully conceived, modelled and glazed. The poor thing has some wear, signs of its life in the garden and beside the fire, but it is a rare and large example measuring almost 10 inches in length.

This fine Martin Brothers tortoise has emerged from decades of hibernation to the delight and excitement of collectors and will be auctioned at Toovey’s on 13th August – I can’t wait to see what he makes!

Click here to see the lot.

“There’s a bit of blue sky over Worthing”

Ken Howard OBE RA – ‘Beach with Kites’, oil on canvas

August arrived with a weekend of perfect weather, blue skies and scudding clouds.

In contrast to Friday, and the crowds that the hottest day of the year brought to the South Coast, Saturday saw a generous gathering of much more sensible numbers on the beaches at Worthing. There was a communal delight in the sharing of a different horizon as lockdown eased and the steady on-shore-breeze embraced us. For those who have experienced the Covid-19 lockdown without access to a garden or an adequate outside space this experience must have been especially precious.

Since the 19th century when the railways allowed people in our towns and cities access to Britain’s coast and towns there has always been a wonderfully democratic quality to our beaches.

I grew up in Horsham in the early 1970s. Everyone seemed to have much less materially than we do today and yet we had so much more. We had time, and not just as children but grown-ups too.

It was an adventure to get to the beach in our ancient pale blue Morris Travellers. Many of the roads in Worthing were still concrete and the old cars made a boom-ba-langa noise as they bounced over the joins which delighted me and my brother.

You could leave Horsham’s micro-climate in blazing sunshine to arrive at the coast to find a howling wind or a sea fret. Sunshine or showers my Granny’s response was always the same “Oh there’s a bit of blue sky over Worthing”. An optimistic outlook which has been good training for life. Part of the seaside tradition was Grandpa making tea on an ancient Gaz stove and Granny’s pink iced sponge cake. We would swim, sail, fly kites and walk to the ice cream van. This pebbly bit of beach holds a special place in my heart with a sense of joy and freedom.

The dance of light on an incoming tide, the whoosh and clatter of the waves as they break on the pebbles and the salty wind on my face has the power to restore me in a way I find hard to describe.

These memories bring to mind a wonderful oil painting by the contemporary British artist Ken Howard titled ‘Beach with Kites’ which we sold at Toovey’s for £5000. His art is about revelation, communication and celebration. Here families soak up the sun and sea air in a shimmering light with vibrant colours. The windbreaks with their strong vertical and horizontal lines lead us through the medley of people. You can sense the heat, breeze and happy voices enjoying a picnic beside the sea.

Amongst family, friends and those I meet along the way there seems to be a consensus that we were all going a bit too fast for our own good and the world before Covid-19. Perhaps post-Covid things might look rather more like my childhood where we had less but so much more.

Like the beach itself Ken Howard’s art, inspired by light, lifts our spirits raising us above the challenges and sorrows of life. No wonder there is a need to be beside the sea especially in these times!

With any luck a combination of old-fashioned good manners, common sense and a genuine care for others will prevail and hold back the tide of a second wave. I hope this beautiful weather blesses you and those you love – keep safe.