Two French clocks depicting Paul et Virginie

Contributor: Hélène Cussac

Location: Collection Baronne et Baron François Duesberg, Musée François Duesberg, Mons, Belgium/Private Collection, France.

Description: Paul et Virginie, the novella by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, published in 1788 and a best-seller throughout the 19th Century, was particularly celebrated by the decorative arts. Saint-Pierre’s pastorale, which speaks of moral values such as innocence, virtue, charity, the family and work, corresponded perfectly to the bourgeois values developed at the end of the ‘Ancien Régime’. It catered also on the one hand to a pronounced taste for the exotic, which the story offered thanks to its setting in the natural countryside of the Île de France (Mauritius) and, on the other, to contemporary interest in the concept of the ‘noble savage’ as represented by the enslaved Africans, actors in the fiction. Hence fans, plates, screens, magic lanterns, armchairs and sofas covered in toile de Jouy, and wallpapers were decorated with episodes from the novel. From the period of the Directoire, through the Empire and the Restoration, one ornamental object was particularly fashionable : the clock, decorated with characters in the story. This remarkable clock was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 with a view to gifting it to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre himself.

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William Cowper’s Pocket Watch

William Cowper's Pocket Watch

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.

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