If you were shown a clock or watch face without any numbers, would you be able tell the time using only the position of the hands? Today, we are so accustomed to telling time using a round clock face that most of us would be able to decipher the position of the hands without much difficulty. However, what we take for granted now wasn’t always the case. In eighteenth century France, for example, clockmakers experimented with many different ways of visualising time, and this blog by guest blog writer Rachel Skokowski, a PhD student at Oxford University, examines one unusual invention in particular: the rotating dial clock.
The Wallace Collection features five examples of French rotating dial clocks, all dating from the period c. 1770-c.1781. While rotating dial clocks first appeared in France as early as the seventeenth century, they reached their peak popularity in the late eighteenth century when the clocks at the Wallace Collection were produced. This period marked the end of the reign of Louis XV and the beginning of that of Louis XVI, who succeeded the throne in 1774. The newly crowned monarch is even commemorated in this mantel clock pictured below.
As you can see from this example, the rotating dials of the clock are located in the globe on which Louis XVI and the goddess Minerva rest their arms. The bottom band of numbers in Roman numerals displays the hours, while the top band with Arabic numerals displays the minutes. Both bands rotate around the globe, while the stationary fleur-de-lys at the bottom of the globe indicates the time.
Would you have been able to figure out how to use this clock just by looking at it? It certainly presents a very different way of telling time than the conventional round clock face we are used to today. This blog will explore some of the questions raised by the unusual nature of these rotating dial clocks: why did they become so popular at this point in the eighteenth century? And what can they can tell us about different ways that people visualised and engaged with time at this period?
One reason for the popularity of rotating dials at the end of the eighteenth century was the trend towards ever more creative, sculptural clocks over the course of the century. Clocks made at the beginning of the eighteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century looked very different: they highlighted the clock’s defining features as a timepiece, such as its large round dial, which usually took up most of the clock face, and the pendulum, which was displayed through windows in the side of the clock. In comparison to these earlier clocks, French clockmaker André-Charles Boulle took clock designs in a new direction in the eighteenth century with his extremely popular “Love Triumphing Over Time” model, shown below.
With this model, Boulle set the stage for a new type of clock, one that highlighted the sculptural skills of artists who created the clock case, rather than drawing attention to the technical elements of the clock’s inner workings. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the production of French clocks skyrocketed and clock designs became increasingly complex and elaborate. In this context, rotating dials could have emerged as a way of creating more and more creative clocks for wealthy clients who wanted to distinguish themselves from other patrons, and for marchands-merciers (dealers) who were looking for exciting new objects to sell.
The unique shape of the rotating dial also provides greater artistic potential for the maker of the clock case. Its three-dimensional nature allows the rotating dial to be incorporated into the overall design of the clock as a sculpture in unprecedented ways, beautifully demonstrated by this example of a clock depicting the toilette of Venus in the Wallace Collection.
In this clock, the rotating dial hidden in the table seamlessly integrates the time-telling portion of the clock into the sculptural scene depicted by the figures. It is one of the figures themselves who is even responsible for helping the viewer read the time, as Cupid (who would originally have held an arrow) points out the time. Similarly, the rotating dials hidden in the gold band at the top of the urn in this clock and candelabrum at the Wallace Collection allow the clock to harmoniously co-exist alongside the statue of Cupid and the candelabrum.
However, this example highlights one criticism of rotating dial clocks: do they still function as tools for telling time? Or does the clock merely become an excuse for the decoration around it? Would you even have noticed the rotating dial hidden in the urn at first glance?
This raises an important point about how we should consider the function of clocks in eighteenth-century France. In addition to being used as tools to tell the time, eighteenth-century French clocks also functioned as decorative objects, especially such luxurious examples as those in the Wallace Collection. The type of consumer that would have purchased such clocks would have displayed them as status symbols, expensive objects meant to be appreciated for their beauty, novelty and the skill that went into making them. Yet we should not underestimate the importance of these clocks as timepieces, as even wealthy consumers required following the time in order to participate in a highly structured social schedule. The owner also still chose to purchase a clock rather than a sculpture, and viewers would have appreciated the technical skill behind the clock. The challenging nature of reading a rotating dial in particular would also have acted as a kind of intellectual game for the viewer.
This brings us back to our original question: what does the act of making it more challenging to tell time through the use of rotating dials reveal about the ways people visualised and conceptualised time in the eighteenth century?
First, the widespread use of rotating dials at this period demonstrates a growth in time literacy, or the knowledge of how to tell time. In order to tell the time using a rotating dial, the viewer would have needed to be familiar enough with eighteenth-century conventions, such as the use of Roman numerals for hours and Arabic numerals for minutes. The viewer would then have needed to creatively switch from the usual mode of following moving hands around stationary numbers, to using a stationary indicator to interpret moving numbers.
This unusual act of reading a rotating dial might also change one’s perception of the passage of time. As the dials rotate, each new hour appears and disappears before the viewer, unlike a conventional clock face where all the hours are visible at the same time. The rotating dial thus highlights the present moment by focusing the viewer on only a few hours in front of them. Rotating dial clocks such as the ones at the Wallace Collection could therefore reflect a new emphasis on making the most of time that had emerged over the course of the eighteenth century. As timekeeping became more accessible through the spread of public clocks, clocks in the home, and even pocket watches carried on one’s person, people could be held accountable for their time in ways that would not have been possible previously, and this supported the idea of time as something not to be wasted.
With their use of stationary time indicators, the hand of a rotating dial clock, and by extension the viewer, even becomes a fixed point around which time moves, rather than viewing a clock face with a fixed set of hours around which the clock’s hand, and our lives, move. This way of viewing time could oppose perceptions of mankind as powerless in the face of the relentless, deadly force of time. This negative perception of time as an inexorable march towards death was another popular way of visualising time in the eighteenth century. This theme was often depicted on clocks through imagery of the Greek Titan Kronos (who we saw portrayed earlier in Boulle’s classic model) who was famous for killing his own father with a sickle. In contrast, most rotating dial clocks do not feature this imagery, and the way that the rotating dial emphasises the immediacy of the present moment seems to contradict this emphasis on the inevitable passage of time.
Ultimately, rotating dial clocks such as the examples at the Wallace Collection are an important reminder of the many different ways that clocks can represent the abstract concept of time in a physical object. Not only is it useful to study such unusual examples as the rotating dial clock to better understand historical approaches to telling time, it also reminds us to re-examine what we take for granted in the conventional clock face today. The next time you check the time on your watch or smartphone, you might even take a moment to appreciate the creativity and ingenuity behind the many experiments that brought us to the ways we tell time today.
By Rachel Skokowski