BOOKREVIEW: White: English Clocks for the Eastern Markets(The clocks of J.Cox et al.)

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
London Clocks for Constantinople and Beijing

English Clocks for Eastern Markets- English Clockmakers Trading in China & the Ottoman Empire 1580-1815, by Ian White. Published 2012 by the Antiquarian Horological Society, Ticehurst, United Kingdom. ISBN 978 0 901180 51 3. Hardcover, clothbound, dust jacket, 398 pages. Bibliography, Index, 10 chapters and 6 appendices. Approx. 180 pictures, majority in color. Available through the publisher‘s website: for UKP 75, (ca. US$120) plus postage,AHS members discount available.

High-grade English clocks are mostly known for their simple elegance and understated design. But for over 200 years, there was a speciality segment in British horology that radically difffered from that norm: Luxury clocks, made mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries, designed and built in England especially for the Turkish and Chinese luxury markets.

In terms of number of pieces this was never a big business, but surviving examples of ‚Eastern market‘ clocks periodically pop up at the high-grade auction houses, and some can be found scattered in a few horological museums. Up to recently, however that type of clock was virtually undocumented in the horological literature[1]. The Antiquarian Horological Society, the Britisch membership organisation of horological afficionados, has now remedied that vacuum; it has produced a major scholarly overview of the subject. Like other AHS publications, the new book is not cheap, but comprehensive and well produced, the kind of book a commercial publisher is unlikely to publish.

The book covers two distinctly different horological niche markets: UK-made clocks exported to the Ottoman empire (now Turkey), and exports to China. Both of them started in the 17th century and reached their peak in the second half of the 18th century. The first four chapters provide background information that will be of interest primarily to specialists in the subject matter. They deal in some detail with: 1. Chinese and Ottoman concepts of time, 2. Anglo-Chinese Trade and 3. Anglo –Ottoman Trade, examining the political, cultural, logistical and commercial structures and obstacles of such trading. In that era any sort of foreign trade with these empires was contingent on paying tributes to the ruler (i.e. the Sultan in Constantinopel or the emperor in China, as well as their top functionaries) and one of the most sought after gifts within the ruling elites were complicated clocks, often with mechanical music and automatons. These clocks were mostly designed in a ‚busy‘, colorful, highly ornate style very different from most domestic market clocks of that era.

Chapter 4, entitled ‚Luxury, Money and Bancruptcy‘ discusses the socio-economic structures of the London luxury goods market, which allowed some specialist horological providers to focus on this ‚Foreign Luxury‘ market. This is all very interesting information, but if your interest is mainly in the actual objects and the clockmakers who made them, you may skip the first quarter of the book and start your reading on page 94.
Even if if the pretty pictures of the objects do not start until Chapter 7, I nevertheless urge you to read Chapters 5 and 6, wich describe the life, and the business ventures of the best known and most flamboyant player in that field, James Cox (1723-1800), because one cannot fully comprehend these artifacts without understanding the man and his companies. Cox was a jeweler by trade, but primarily an entrepreneur who designed one of a kind artifacts, and contracted to have the components made by craftsmen in the various horological, mechanical music, automaton and decorative arts trades.

For the more casual reader, the core of the book are Chapters 7 , 8 and 9, entitled ‚James Cox’s Amazing Clocks‘ and ‚Design and Artestry: The Chinese Market‘ and ‚Ottoman Market Clocks‘. These three chapters, a total of 130 pages, or about a third of the book, contain over 120 color illustrations (over two thirds of the images of the book), and - at least to this reader - the visual, over-the-top splendor of the artifacts, is what defines and characterizes this section of horological history. That section of the book alone is worth its price.

A short Chapter 9, called ‚Decline & Loot‘ concludes the main body of the book. Six appendices (totaling 50 pages) provide interesting further information that is tangential to the subject. To this reviewer, the most important one is a comprehensive 15 page directory ‚English Clock- & Watchmakers Trading in the Chinese or Ottoman Markets‘, providing short biographic entries of over 100 British clockmakers known to have served the eastern markets. Cross references to known clocks in various museums are also provided. Another appendix provides a cross reference to the 56 pieces by Cox, which are described in a publication by Cox in 1774[2]., that he describes as his ‚Museum Catalog‘, but which was actually a high stakes lottery he organized to dispose of excess inventory. The remaining four appendices are an essay on a particular British diplomatic mission to China in 1792/4, two source documents reproduced in full text, and a serial number list of watches exported to the Near East by G. and E. Pryor.

The book under review is a unique and valuable addition to the horological literature, and should appeal to any serious collector of horology who is interested in broadening his or her exposure to a class of fascinating, high-grade horological artifacts that one only rarely encounters even in museums, and almost never in the marketplace.

Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ - Dec 8, 2012

[1] The only other recent English language major book on the subject is a 2010 exhibit catalog from the Netherlands: Treasures from the forbidden City, by Bob van Wely, et al; published 2010, ISBN 978 90 8016888 7 5, which was the first scholarly catalog of the biggest concentration of such clocks, found at the Palace Museum in Peking, but the Dutch book does not focus on British origin clocks only.

[2] A descriptive inventory of the several exquisite and magnificent pieces of mechanism and jewelry : comprised in the schedule annexed to an act of Parliament, made in the thirteenth year of the reign of His Majesty, George the Third, for enabling Mr. James Cox, of the city of London, jeweler, to dispose of his museum by way of lottery. By James Cox. Published 1774: London : Printed by H. Hart, for Mr. Cox

Cox-HorseAndTentClock-PalaceMuseumPeking.jpg White-Eastern Marke(small).jpg
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