BOOKREVIEW by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

Two Catalogs of Old Watches in English Museums


The British Museum Watches, by David Thompson, Photography by Saul Peckhan. Published 2008 by the British Museum Press, London; hardback, dustjacket, 174 pages, ISBN 973-0-7141-5055-0, illustrated in color, Glossary, Bibliography, Index. Available at British Museum web site (www.britishmuseum.co.uk , product 50550) for approx. $25 or discounted at www.amazon.co.uk or borrow from the Library & Research Center at the National Watch & Clock Museum.

Watches in the Ashmolean Museum, by David Thompson. Published 2007 by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; hardback or paperback, XX & 92 pages, ISBN 84444-218-x paperback, 84444-219-8 hardback, illustrated in color, Glossary, Bibliography, Index. Available at www.amazon.co.uk for approx. $30.


David Thompson is not only one of Britain’s most eminent horological scholars, and the Curator of the Horological Collection at the British Museum. Horological bibliophiles will know him as the author of the recent catalog “The British Museum Clocks” (2004, ISBN 973-0-7141-2812 0) which is the companion volume to the first title reviewed here. The British Museum Watches follows the format established by the clock book, selecting the most important pieces from the collection (in this case 77 watches) and presenting each one chronologically on a double page spread, with at least half of the space allocated to two to six superb color photographs of dial, case and movement. Where appropriate side shots of the movement, details of signature, and under dial images are used as well.

The selection of 77 pieces described in detail must not have been easy given the depth of the collection at the British Museum, they own over 4500 significant watches. From a global horology perspective their collection is somewhat UK-centric and nearly exclusively pre 1880. They do not claim to collect the full breadth of the history of the watch, but this book nevertheless attempts to stretch until the present, and that is its weak side. For the time period when craftsman and artisans made watches there was an embarrassment of riches to choose from; the documented watches are first class and most interesting. The last 130 years are represented by 25 examples, including an effort to tell the story of the wristwatch with just nine samples. This reviewer feels it might have been more satisfying to limit the effort to documenting just pocket watches, or even to pre-industrial watches, because frankly the collection at the British Museum is not really suitable to tell the later part of the story, and this book completely omits such themes as American railroad watches, or the complicated Swiss watches of the 19th and early 20th century.

The texts on each of the selected pieces puts the artifacts in their historic context and points out why they – and/or their maker - are significant, it points out important technical or stylistic/aesthetic details, without wasting words on physical descriptions that can be easily gotten from the images.

He second museum watch catalog by Thompson, ‘Watches in the Ashmolean Museum”, the art Museum in Oxford, was published barely half a year later, and – not surprising - follows a similar style. However this was to be part of the series “Ashmolean Handbooks”, prescribing a page size of less than half of the London publication, as well as a page-count of around 110. Here we find a 20 page general introduction to the history of the watch, and after the catalog entry a 10 page section of mini biographies of the watchmakers whose work is featured in the catalog.

The catalog proper, covering 31 selected pocket watches, also devotes a double page spread (in three cases 4 pages), again using at least half the space to several color photographs of each watch. But given the page size of 21x15 cm (as opposed to 25x25 cm for the BM book) details are a bit harder to see here. I also believe that the quality of the photography and printing, while more than adequate, is not quite up to the expectations raised by the BM book.

The 31 pocket watches are presented chronologically, covering the time from 1540 to 1869, with 27 predating the year 1800. 13 examples are by London makers, 7 –mostly early pieces- are from Germany and 7 from France. Photographs concentrate on dials, cases and movement backplates. Unfortunately there seemed to be no budget to uncase the movements to present underdial views or side shots into the movements.

The authors’ text on the 31 watches is full of fascinating tidbits of horological history, and –not surprising as this is primarily an art museum- focuses more on the decorative arts elements of the cases than on the technical details. This reviewer particularly appreciates that each entry, besides dimensional and provenance data, has its own bibliographic reference pointing to further reading on this maker or this kind of watch.

Many horological enthusiasts in their zeal to augment their collections diligently study timepieces at dealers, fairs and auctions, but fail to fully realize that many of the best and most interesting timepieces in existence have long ago been acquired by museums, where some of them are on public exhibit, but many are hidden in the reserves. (Note: The British Museum is exemplary in making its horological reserves available by appointment in their Horological Students Room.) This reviewer applauds David Thompson for creating, with the books under review, the kind of published catalogs that bring these horological treasures to the attention of horologist who can not travel to all the museums. If these books can entice some of their readers to take the time and visit more horological collections they have served another noble purpose.

May many more museums be inspired by David Thompson’s example to do their bit to augment the published record on some of the greatest timekeepers in the world.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki. Sussex NJ June 24, 2008
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