The Artifice of the Pocket Sundial.

Grace and beauty,  parties and beautiful women. Menageries in the Tower, Nell Gwyn and the Windsor beauties.

Charles II, as the Horrible Histories series puts it so succinctly, was the king who brought back partying.

It is so typical of Charles that he chose to legislate about what his subjects should wear. There is something rather Let Them Eat Cake about the whole thing. Charles learned through the Persian Ambassador of a garment something  like a vest: a waistcoat. And suddenly everything French was Out, and everything Persian was In.

Samuel Pepys, that long-suffering administrator and diarist, records the whole business in his diary. In October 1666, just months after the fire of London, when Charles’s mind should have been on a charred capital,  Pepys writes: “The King hath yesterday in council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how.”

Fellow diarist John Evelyn was watching from the sidelines, too: “To Court,” he writes, also in October 1666, “it being the first time his Majesty put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of vest changing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloak, into a comely dress after the Persian mode, with girdles or straps, and shoestrings and garters into buckles…resolving never to alter it, and to leave the French mode”.

And so the waistcoat inveigled itself irrevocably into English fashion by royal decree.

And every waistcoat had its pockets, into which was slipped an elegant timepiece.

I have always assumed that this timepiece was a pocket watch. But it seem there was something else that people would use, right through until the advent of the steam train.

The sundial has been around for thousands of years; The Venerable Bede advocated using the human body as one, and Bewcastle Cross in Cumbria is an eighth century stone sundial which stands tall. English gardens sport them; Taipei 101, one of the worlds tallest buildings opened in Taiwan in 2004, is designed to act as a monumental sundial, casting the time by the sun on a nearby park.

I have always entertained a private joke about sundials. What if one make them small: dainty enough to fit inside one of Charles II’s waistcoat pockets?

Imagine my mirth, then, when I stumbled upon the most astounding collection of real, bona fide pocket sundials.

They reside in a museum in Oxford, the original site of the Ashmolean: a gem of a place full of polished brass and numbered scales: the Museum of the History of Science. A favourite haunt of the curious, every glass case is filled with a different story, often etched on ancient brass or ivory plates, in a babel of languages.

On the ground floor, turn to your right and you will find the pocket sundials. They are part of the original bequest, a collection made by Lewis Evans, a businessman and collector from a family of world-famous archaeologists. His older brother excavated Knossos; but he was drawn to the clinical perfection of scientific instruments, amongst which sit the pocket sundials.

They were quite the thing in the 16th century. When archaeologists excavated the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, they are said to have found nine pocket sundials.

And to see one is to learn to know what avarice means.

Time-worn golden brass and creamy ivory form the backdrop for the markings which can make order out of sunlight. These things were made to be touched and fingered and worn away by utilitarian use, yet their age has rendered them strange as a quark.

I could not capture their strange attraction on camera. But I can record a shadow of it through a lens: and urge you, if you are ever in the vicinity, to go and see these little icons from another age.

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34 thoughts on “The Artifice of the Pocket Sundial.

  1. I want one! I could use it when I’m gardening or walking in the woods. Can you imagine fingering one of these pocket sundials, the warmth of the gold? Oh, dear. I’m getting carried away.

    Loooooved this!

  2. Sun-dials in the garden make sense, stationed as they are at right angles.

    But pocket sun-dials?
    How would you know whether you had it aimed in the right direction?
    What about telling time indoors . . . or on cloudy days . . . or at night?

    Limited practicality.
    But intriguing.

    thanks, kate.

      1. We were 🙂 Time was very short: takes me an hour to get to you (including the traffic in the centre) and thenI usually have two or three hours to pack in as much as I can! I shall mail you the next time I’m up, though…

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