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Brian Loomes Antique Clocks

Brian & Joy Loomes

Pateley Bridge

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks A Four-hundred-year-old Sundial

I like old sundials, just old garden sundials, the type they call 'horizontal' ones. Not that I really understand them, as some can be quite complicated affairs. But they were very often made by clockmakers, and therefore stand as an example of the clockmaker's (or at least the engraver's) art, can usually be identified and dated by virtue of readily-available knowledge of the maker. What's more they don't take up a lot of space and are certainly a cheaper proposition than collecting clocks. So old sundials have a lot going for them really.

I am thinking of the plates themselves, not those that survive with the whole stone or concrete stand, which do come expensive and what's more you need to have had your shredded wheat breakfast to think of taking one of those home from an auction. Don't be put off necessarily by the fact that the stand might be concrete, as I understand the Romans 'invented', or perhaps I should say used, concrete, so some concrete examples can be very old. Most concrete stand ones however are late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and most older ones have stands of carved stone. I remember years ago when away on holiday coming across a superb sundial with its original carved stone baluster-shaped stand, made by an Oxford maker working in the late seventeenth century - I forget his name now. It was that kind of stand which stood like a kelly doll, with a massive ball-shaped base, which could almost re-upright itself when rocked over, and it was cheap. I drooled over it, but it would have taken six heavyweight wrestlers to lift it, and there was no way it could be got into my estate car, and even if it could, the sheer weight would have destroyed the car. I should have bought it and arranged carriage to get it the three hundred miles or so journey home. I didn't, and my mistake haunts me to this day to the point where I can still picture it clearly in my mind and even have the occasional dream about it.

sundial seen from above
1. The Isaack Symmes sundial seen from above. Closer view.

So I take more care nowadays with sundials, and one I came across recently is illustrated here. It is a small (six-inch) square dial, apparently made of brass, and very discoloured with verdigris, though not pitted or particularly worn. Occasional dials are found made of lead or even slate, but the majority are of brass. Some are said to be made of bronze, but the ones I see are normally so discoloured, that I wonder at the prowess of anyone who can tell discoloured bronze from brass. It was in an auction, not highly regarded by the auctioneer, who thought more of the two extending toasting forks and the pair of wooden bellows that came with it. The dial was not in itself a prepossessing thing, but the name it bore rang a bell in my mind. It was signed Isaack Symmes. No place, no date.

I recognised that name vaguely, and looked up his details in my own book, The Early Clockmakers of Great Britain, to find that he worked in London at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1622 he was one of the sixteen 'British' craftsmen, who were signatories to the first petition to the King for the formation of a separate Clockmakers' Company. The intention was that such a company could keep out foreigners, mainly Frenchmen, by preventing them from trading here and stealing the market, which the petitioners thought was rightfully that of native British workmen. That was a bit rich, since Isaac Symmes was himself of French origin! But I suppose the petitioners were desperate and every signatory was welcome. They just got his name down in time, since it was almost the last thing he did - he died in that very year, 1622.

The 'native' English evidently had problems pronouncing his surname. It was not the same as the common or garden English Sims, which they could say, and even write, well enough. If they had difficulty in pronouncing it, it is obvious when we see it in records of the day they had a devil of a job in writing it down. Of course it all depends who wrote it, and most examples of names in old records are not written by the person himself. They could spell Sims easily enough, even if it was sometimes Simms. But Isaac's name was written variously (by others) as Sumes, Sunes, Simes, Symes, Symme, Symmes and Symms, with barely any two spellings being the same. They knew well enough who they meant. All the same, uncertain spellings, when written four hundred years ago with a goose feather on a greasy cow's skin by those who had not always been over-attentive during their joined-up-writing class, are not always easily fathomed. These seem to be attempts at writing down that French u sound which lies in the English palate somewhere between an i and a u, and which is every schoolchild's nightmare to pronounce.

sundial showing signature
2. The sundial close up to show the signature. Closer view.

Even though he had to live with the inability of others to spell his name anything like correctly, Isaac knew how he thought he should spell it, and wrote it consistently as Symmes - or occasionally as Simmes, which amounts to consistency for a Frenchman. His first name was usually written in this country as Isaac, but he, almost always, preferred Isaack. I find these eccentric spellings both charming and distinctive, and it was through these that my attention was drawn to identifying the maker of this sundial. There could hardly be two 'Isaack Symesses'. I have more than a little sympathy with Isaac, since I receive mail addressed to Goomes, Doomes, Toomes, Zoomes and Bloomes, by the most well-intentioned people, and amazingly, it gets here!

It just so happens that a note scribbled in the margin of my book (I am an unrepentant margin scribbler) referred me back to a detailed and studious article which was written about 'Isaac Simmes' some years back by David Thompson of the British Museum Horological Students' Room - in the March 1987 issue of Antiquarian Horology. In this David reveals more of Symmes's background, a man who was known principally for making watches, five examples by him being known at that time. The one in the British Museum is there described in detail.

'Isaack Symmes' was apprenticed in 1594 to John Humphreys in the Goldsmiths' Company of London, was later transferred to a different master, became a freeman in the company in January 1604, married almost at once in March 1604 at the parish church of St. Botolph in Aldgate. Apprentices were forbidden to marry until fully qualified, though it didn't always stop them. By this time many were desperate to marry, and it seems Isaac was no different from the rest. Some of his work is signed 'at Aldgate', some with just 'London', some, like my sundial (oh, yes, I bought it) with no place at all.

David Thompson quotes extracts from Isaac's will, written in November 1622 and proved before the year was out. He seems to have been quite prosperous for a man of only about forty-two, especially for one tied prematurely into wedlock when he had barely drawn his first month's wages as a freeman, and generous too. Once he had done right by his wife, 'Em', he left all manner of small bequests to people he knew, in the trade and out, including several to the boatmen (he called them watermen, but then he was a Frenchman), who ferried him regularly up and down the river on business. It seemed to me that David Thompson was the man to have a word with, and I was right.

the replaced gnomon
3. The replaced gnomon. Closer view.

David knew more about Isaack Symmes's sundials than any man living, with the possible exception of Gerard L'E Turner, whose recently-published book he referred me to, which is 'Elizabethan Instrument Makers, published by the Oxford University Press. There Mr. Turner describes the only three sundials so far recorded by Isaac.

The first is a large dial of just over twelve inches square signed 'Isaack Symmes Gouldsmith & Clockmaker at London / Anno 1609', and is in the Science Museum.

The second a little smaller one at just over seven inches square signed 'Isaack Simmes Gouldsmyth and Clockmaker' and is in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

It is interesting that he styles himself a 'clockmaker' on these, the finest two dials, as, apart from sundials, his work is known only through watches. We do know he made clocks however, presumably balance-wheel lantern clocks, from a bequest in his will, where he leaves the option of one to his son-in-law and calls it a 'chamber clock', which was the regular name at the time for what we now call lantern clocks. Maybe these actual dials were sold with clocks to assist the owner in setting them to time.

The third sundial, smaller still at about six and a half inches square, is signed 'Isaack Simmes / 1610', and is in private ownership.

Mine makes a fourth one, illustrated here. It is just over six inches square, signed simply 'Isaack Symmes' without location or date. One can judge by the angle of the gnomon that the first three were made for use in or near to London, and they have splendidly-shaped gnomons of considerable artistry. It would seem that the gnomon of mine has been replaced anciently and considerably less skilfully, with a gnomon apparently set at an incorrect angle, more suited to launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, which might give near-accurate readings in parts of Finland. Unless of course Isaac made it for a passing Finn. Mine is the simplest and most basic of the four, but I am delighted to have come across it. It is not every day I get to handle a four-hundred-year-old sundial - and I've seen worse examples of toasting forks and bellows that came with it.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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