24th Nov 2016
We've reached that time of the year when many take a few moments to reflect on their experiences. We take so many aspects of our time for granted, yet as we reach the final months, it all seems to have whizzed past. Still, in the end, time is very much what we make of it; it influences how we relate to others or even ourselves, our story. Scott certainly felt that way.
The Battlements, the turrets gray,
Seem'd half abandon'd to decay;
On barbican and keep of stone
Stern Time the foeman's work had done.
Time was of the utmost importance to him, while also posing a challenge to overcome. This becomes obvious in so many aspects of his life, ranging from his writing with a timer to force himself to produce work, to his creation of new landscapes at Abbotsford which are still visible today. So, we can all agree that the manifestations of time are manifold and, reflecting on how this affects Abbotsford inside and out, we have picked two pieces to show just that this month. Still, the time pieces chosen are made of stone, a joke by Scott perhaps? Or maybe a reminder to the literal signs of time on the harsh surface?
Regency Longcase Sandstone Clock, probably by John Smith of Darnick
This piece is perhaps one of the most unusual in the Abbotsford collections and symbolises the unique character and wit of Sir Walter Scott’s interiors. Stylistically, the carved architectural ornaments on the top imitate those found on Georgian longcase clocks made from woods such as mahogany and oak, however this example is unique in being entirely hewn from local sandstone. The finished product is testament to the considerable skill of the mason responsible for sculpting the three individual sections that lock together. Mortise and tenon joints ordinarily found in carpentry have been expertly recreated in stone, complete with a hinged sandstone door allowing access to the pendulum within.
The damaged door and difficult storing situation; Closer view of the clockface and intricate carvings after the restoration
The door has survived but a substantial fragment has been lost earlier its life, along with the original hinges. After careful consideration we have decided not to attach new steel hinges to the stonework, preferring to preserve what remains of the weighty door in our stores due to its fragility. We are currently exploring other ways of shielding the movement once it is installed and this work will constitute phase 2 of our restoration. I mention the movement because the hollow interior of the trunk, the bored holes in the face for the hands and winding keys, and the provision for access points to the inside of the hood all indicate that this was a working clock, although tragically its original movement has not survived. John Smith of Darnick’s diary, which details his work as a mason at Abbotsford, mentions sending a plan of a clock to an Edinburgh clockmaker in August 1823 in the company of his brother Tom. We can only assume that these must have been the plans for this piece.
The conservatory, on the left in the photo, is likely to have been the home of the clock
The clock’s history remains very mysterious, but recent conservation work has enabled us to draw some conclusions about its past. The absence of any significant erosion or biological damage indicates that the clock was housed inside, rather than in the gardens as you might expect. The rough-hewn nature of the back suggests that it once stood against a wall, or possibly in a niche. No niche of the correct dimensions exists in the Orangery in the Kitchen Garden, and so much has been written about Abbotsford’s interiors and contents over the last two hundred years that we think it highly unlikely that the clock stood in Scott’s public apartments. The most likely explanation is that this quirky piece was housed in the original Conservatory of Abbotsford, demolished in the 1850s during the creation of the West or Hope-Scott Wing. This room was on the ground-floor but tended to be considered a private family space.
We are delighted to showcase this piece but this is only the first step of its restoration. We are now working with a local clockmaker to get Scott’s unique sandstone clock ticking once again! If you would like to support our restoration work and help us fit a new movement to the clock, you can visit our Just Giving Campaign to donate.
You might think that the clock is the only stone timepiece at Abbotsford but you would be mistaken. Though not as unusual, there are two sundials, one in the Morris Garden and South Court, visible from Scott's study. Considering Scott's preferences for displaying large carved stone items in his collection as well as those given as presents around the gardens, these two timepieces fit in well with the layout.
The sundial in the Morris Garden belonged to Scott, and was, similar to the clock, made to his specifications. It was inscribed by him with the words nux gar, or night cometh, in Greek, using a Roman script. The origin of the inscription is rather interesting: It is clear that the words come from the Bible (John 9:4), with the section saying 'I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work’ but it is not clear what inspired Scott to choose them for the sundial.
Scott's sundial in the Morris Garden, some of the inscription has become difficult to see due to erosion
On the one hand, Scott was candid about his lack of study of Ancient Greek yet the quote is strangely prescient of his later life and death, when he might be said to have literally worked himself to the grave. On the other, the same words were also inscribed on Samuel Johnson’s pocket watch. Samuel Johnson, a writer and man of letters, published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 which was only superseded by the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later and Scott knew him and his works very well. It is very likely that Scott was aware of both associations and would have expected other to know that reference, too.
Margaret S Gatty's sketch of Scott's sundial; as can be seen in her sketch, the gnomon was already missing in 1839
Sadly, several aspects of the sundial remain secret today. Its gnomon has been lost since shortly after Scott's death in 1832 and it is not known what it looked like. It is also unknown where it was originally placed, though it was described by Margaret S Gatty (1809-1875) after a visit to Abbotsford in 1839 as being in a plantation close to the house. She also published a sketch of the sundial in her The Book of Sundials, showcasing the simple Gothic style windows carved on each side as well as the inscription.
The Scotch sundial in the south court
The second sundial, the one located in the South Court just in front of the window to Scott's study was given to Abbotsford as recently as 1989. It is a beautiful example of a Scotch dial, with different ways of reading the time on each of its four faces. It still retains all its originial features and gnomons, so can still be used today. It came from a manor at Drygrange, near Melrose as a present and showcases Scott's coat of arms. Though it is questionable if it there was any relation to Scott, there might have been a relation to the Halliburton name, which was known in the area.
Everytime we dive into Abbotsford's collections, we unearth truly incredible stories that not only tell us more about the house but about Scott and his descendants. Knowing that all of these pieces were moved, some of their original pieces lost, tells us a lot about life at Abbotsford and helps us present its stories to you, our visitors.
Thanks for reading!
Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager & Pippa Coles, Gardens Manager