“It’s impossible to imagine a world without clocks, and that is why horology has always fascinated me.” The seeds of Dr John C Taylor’s passion for timekeeping were planted in childhood.
Born in Buxton in 1936, he would watch his father Eric (a fellow inventor) taking apart and reassembling clocks on the kitchen table. As a pilot since his teens, he became acutely aware of the role of time in navigation.
He purchased his first antique timekeeper (a month-going longcase, c.1710, by his namesake John Taylor of Ormskirk) in a shop near Harrods shortly before moving to the Isle of Man in the mid 1970s and so began one of the greatest collections of early English clocks in private hands.
Switched on to collecting
Dr Taylor is best known as the inventor of the automatic switch-off device on the electric kettle known as the Otter G.
“I can go to any high street in the Western world, look in the window of any shop selling kettles, and say ‘I designed that one, designed that one, designed the controls on that one’.”
The sale of more than a billion of these devices (some of them recently pictured on a series of stamps issued by the Isle of Man Post Office) helped fund some of the best Golden Age and precision timekeepers that have come to market in the past four decades, each purchase made to tell an extra paragraph in the story of English clockmaking.
The Taylor holdings ultimately totalled over 150 clocks, watches and instruments by a roster of names that read like a Who’s Who of early clockmaking.
Many have formed part of scholarly exhibitions: Taylor’s clocks were the core of the Innovation and Collaboration exhibition at Bonhams (2018) and The Luxury of Time 1550 to 1750 at the National Museum of Scotland and the Manx Museum (2020).
As he explained to ATG in 2016, Dr Taylor found in the great clockmaking pioneers some parallels with his own career and came to admire two men in particular: Ahasuerus Fromanteel (1607-93) and John Harrison (1693-1776).
“Of all the early clockmakers I think Fromanteel made more fundamental manufacturing, research and design [developments]. He was an inventor, he was an entrepreneur, he was an international businessman – all of which I have aspired to be.”
He is among those who think that Fromanteel was making pendulum clocks in London two or three years before the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygen took out a patent for a domestic clock.
“John Harrison is even more a hero of mine because I’ve spent my business life making bimetal controls. He invented bimetal and I only discovered that midway through my life.”
Taylor’s own ‘chronophage’ series of clocks – including that he made for his alma mater Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (astronaut Neil Armstrong made a special visit to see it) – are effectively giant embodiments of Harrison’s grasshopper escapement.
At the age of 85, Dr Taylor has chosen to oversee the sale of his collection through Winchester dealership Carter Marsh.
It is his desire to see the fruits of his 40- year odyssey dispersed in a way that they can be enjoyed by future generations of collectors and enthusiasts rather than left en bloc to an institution. In 2016, Taylor had said: “I have a jaundiced view of museums, that museums only show something like 10% of their clocks and the rest only see the light of day if some particular curator decides to put on a show.”
It is out in the open market where he believes the collection will receive the attention it deserves.
The dispersal will be conducted via a number of catalogued selling exhibitions over perhaps two years. In the absence of a ‘live’ Masterpiece fair this year, highlights from the first Taylor catalogue will be offered at the Bruton Street galleries of English furniture dealer Ronald Phillips from June 23-30. All 46 pieces will then be shown in Winchester (July 3-24).
It is hoped all restrictions will be lifted by the time the doors open in Mayfair but the event will go ahead even if some social-distancing measures are required.
While there is a compelling argument that Golden Age clocks remain undervalued (most cost less than a branded modern wristwatch mass produced in the thousands), the best do not come cheap. While prices start at £2750 (a printed dial surveying compass by Henry Sutton dated 1650), they will rise to £3.5m for the Spanish Tompion, a turtleshell and gilt brass grande sonnerie striking bracket clock commissioned c.1703 for presentation by Queen Anne to Archduke Charles von Habsburg.
One of only 13 full grande sonnerie clocks made by Tompion across his career, it was bought for $2.1m at Sotheby’s Masterpieces from the Time Museum sale in 1999.
It is refreshing that, in the interests of openness, Carter Marsh has chosen to include this kind of historical pricing information in the cataloguing whenever possible.
The dealership is conscious events like this don’t come around too often (particularly now that Sotheby’s and Christie’s seldom hold dedicated clock sales) and believes market transparency is the best policy.