West Dean conservators make rare musical clock for Beijing

Conservators at West Dean College have been working on a rare musical clock made in London and exported to Beijing in the late 18th-century.

The piece is an automaton clock in the form of a Chinese Pagoda.

The clock, circa 1760, is part of the National Trust Collection at Angelsey Abbey which is famous for its important collection of clocks.

Initial investigations revealed the clock mechanisms were suffering from continuous wear and tear. The mechanisms for playing music and rotating three decorative ‘pineapple’ ornaments had become so delicate that conservators at the College agreed with Trust staff to incorporate digital technology to reproduce the music, rather than expose the clock to further duress.

The project was led by clock conservator Matthew Read, who is clocks programme leader at West Dean, with postgraduate student Brittany Cox, who carried out much of the conservation cleaning and maintenance of the object including preparation of the original project report. John Butt and Mark Record designed, prototyped and made the electronics elements of the new control mechanism, and John Leonard digitally recorded the original music.

Matthew Read said: “The challenge in conserving this historical clock was in making the digital drive movement to interface with the historic mechanism and without causing alteration, using traditional clock-making practices.

“It is important that new conservation work does not alter the original, historic features. The aim is to ensure that our work can be reversed at any time in the future to preserve the integrity of the object for future generations.

“The Pagoda Clock project challenges the parameters of what is understood as conservation and puts West Dean College and the National Trust at the forefront of pushing the boundaries in terms of conservation of dynamic objects.”