Contributor: Will Bowers
Location: Olney, UK
Description: This watch became the property of the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) after the death of his uncle Ashley Cowper in 1788. Ashley Cowper held the prestigious office of Clerk of the Parliaments and was the subject of a famous arcadian portrait by William Hogarth, ‘Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter’ (1731), now in the Tate. Ashley was the father of Theodora Cowper, and it was he who intervened to stop the marriage of William and Theodora in the 1750s on the grounds of his nephew’s limited means, and attempted to advance William’s legal career in the 1760s.
As one might expect of a man with an important station in public life, Ashley Cowper’s pocket watch is a desirable object. It is a repeater (i.e. it chimes the hour of the day when the button is depressed) mounted in a gold case, and is protected in two further cases of shagreen and brass. It was made some time between 1740 and 1788 by Thomas Martin, of the Cornhill and later at the Royal Exchange, who was made a Liveryman of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1780, and whose timepieces are held in the British Museum. At a biographical level the beautiful pocket watch represents the sophisticated political world of Ashley Cowper, one that his nephew distanced himself from at Olney, while in William Cowper’s poetry a repeater serves to ‘strike the hour’ for the many recalibrations in European thought that he prophesied for the close of the century.