One of my favourite objects in the Birmingham collection is the Sidereal Clock (sometimes called astronomical clock) by Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill. This was made almost 250 years ago at the Soho Manufactory in Handsworth. It now resides in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but was formerly displayed at Soho House Museum.
Boulton enlisted Scottish astronomer James Ferguson who was the inspiration for the astronomical movements and also a famous member of the Lunar Society, John Whitehurst of Derby, to make the clock movements. The clock is huge, over one metre high, and has a revolving silvered dial showing the movement of the sun against the stars, each studded into the dial. Unusually, it has a 24-hour dial and includes many other details such as the signs of the Zodiac.
The clock case is made of ormolu, with Urania the Muse of Astronomy reclining on the top. Below the clock dial is a relief depicting “Science explaining the Laws of Nature by the globe and the solar system”, demonstrating Boulton’s desire to educate the public in the ways of natural philosophy (what we call science).
The clock was put up for auction at Christie’s of London in 1772 for the ‘astronomical’ price of £275. The clock failed to sell. In 1776 it was sent to Catherine the Great in St Petersburg, with the hope of a sale, which did not materialise. The Court were not impressed enough to buy the clock thinking that such an expensive clock should chime the hours and play tunes! It was returned to Soho in 1787. The clock was never sold and ended up at the estate of Matthew Boulton’s grandson, at Great Tew in Oxfordshire and was acquired by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 1987.
The appeal for me of this object is the beauty of the clock but also the ambition of Boulton in managing the process of creating such complexity and his desire not just to make money from this object but to share his love of science. The historical provenance does no harm to its appeal. Many objects are described as “priceless”, I think this is one of them.