Lunchtime Gallery Talks at the Ashmolean

Watches: Jewel or Machine? 10th February 2006

February 16, 2006
The Lunchtime Talks at the Ashmolean are given by staff and affiliates of the museum with licence to gallop off on their particular hobby horse for 40 minutes with a world-class collection of whatever they’re interested in by way of illustration. The resultant enthusiasm cannot fail to be infectious.

I went to one on watches. By the time you get to the silver room at the Ashmolean (Room 52) you might have become corrupted by the wealth of larger treasures on the way and pass the watch cabinets with only a casual glance at their glittery contents. That’s what’s so good about these gallery talks: each talk is given by a member of the museum staff who is familiar with the collections and their history, and can spotlight, as it were, particular curiosities that you might otherwise have missed.

The Ashmolean has a collection of around 200 watches, of which the oldest dates back to 1520. The variety is astonishing. There is a pair of watches (or watch-cases, rather) shaped like snakes-head fritillaries; there are watches made of turquoise and brass and gold; chatelaine watches to hang from belts with jewels inlaid all over the strap; there’s a watch encrusted in tiny bright sprawling enamel flowers; watches like skulls whose jaws drop open to reveal the time (and have improving mottoes such as Incerta Mortis Hora - “The Hour of Death is Uncertain” engraved over their crowns). There’s even a clever 16th century watch with a robust hand and numbers in raised relief for a blind owner.

Our courteous and knowledgeable guide took us through the fashions and technological innovations over the centuries: did you know that early watch cases are all perforated like pomanders to let the sound out? That before glass was easy to use, many watch-faces were topped instead with great prisms of natural crystal (some even have crystal walls at the side so that the proud owners could peer through at the clockwork)? That when glass came in, the tops of a lot of engraved metal watch cases were simply removed, rather crudely as if with a tin-opener, to make way for a new glass face? Or that all the watches made prior to the coming of waistcoats into fashion have their hanging loops orientated face-on because they were hung around the neck, and all the ones made afterwards have hanging loops orientated side-on in order to hang more easily from a gentleman’s waistcoat pocket? One fact I found particularly endearing was that early spring-powered watches had no mechanical counter to the inconstancy of the force exerted as the spring ran down, so they ran fast for the first part of the day and slow for the second, with half an hour of accuracy in the middle.

They’re re-building part of the Ashmolean at the moment, and our guide apologised for the unpredictability of what we might find on display (“You turn in the middle of a sentence to illustrate what you’re saying and find a sign saying ‘despatched to…’”). This doesn’t seem to detract from the experience though: the collections are so large and varied that all it does is add a certain spontaneity to what’s selected for special attention.

The lunchtime talks run from 1.15 – 2pm with questions afterwards, and cost £2.

You meet in the Randolph Gallery (on the left, just inside the front door). Booking is recommended, on 01865 278015.

See Daily Info's Lectures section for more Lunchtime Gallery Talks.



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