This early Nineteenth century longcase clock brings together the rich history of a clock maker, a dial painter, and a legendary hero. The “Death of Lord Nelson” memorial grandfather clock is an extremely beautiful, sturdy structure with remarkable paintings on an intricately created dial face and richly enameled glass and wood panels. The noble qualities of courage, integrity, endurance, and unfailing accuracy are enshrined in this homage to Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
The clock was created in a time when quality of craftsmanship was passed on through generations. John Alker (1797-1832), known as Alker of Wigan, came from a family of clockmakers in Wigan Lancashire, England. Alker’s name adorns the face of this magnificent clock and Wigan became a town known for its quality clockmaking.
Pendulum clocks were first thought of by Galileo (1564-1642) and later invented by the Dutch mathematician, Christian Huygens in 1656. This Dutch invention increased the accuracy of timepieces by fifteen minutes per day. When William Clement of England introduced the Royal Pendulum in 1670, he increased the accuracy rate variance to less than ten seconds per day. As each craftsman finetuned their trade, the quality and precision of the pendulum clock strengthened naval navigation and mapping of space in the science of astronomy. The clock would continue to be one of the most world-changing inventions as it is the seminal seed of technology. The pendulum clock synchronized human life.
William Whitaker’s (1748-1800) family business of clock dial making spanned the decades of 1790s to the 1830’s, creating distinctively beautiful, hand painted face dials. It was a family business of skilled painters who passed their trade down through the generations. A Whitaker face dial was unique, each face displaying something in each corner of the plate, the shape of the dial was unusual with its square body to mark seconds, minutes, hours, and days and its curved top to trace the movements of the moon throughout the month. Reliable, unique, accurate and beautiful were trademarks of a Whitaker face dial.
When Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died at 1:15pm on October 21st, 1805, while commanding the HMS Victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, a nation mourned the loss of their greatest naval hero. Nelson was a legend in his own time and words like courage, precision, strength, and supreme effectiveness have become synonymous with his name.
He was a brave leader, known to fight side-by-side instead of leading from the back. Nelson forged on regardless of the obstacles of distance and nature’s elements. During his three hour and fifteen-minute death, he was lovingly surrounded by his crew. Folklore records the HMS Victory’s Captain Hardy kissing Nelson’s cheek and forehead and the ship’s doctor soothing his chest as he lay dying.
Nelson is still revered today. In a 2002 BBC poll of ‘100 Greatest Britons’, Nelson ranked ninth, just below John Lennon and just above Oliver Cromwell.
In the months after the shocking news of Lord Nelson’s death, Josiah Boydell (1752-1817), a painter, engraver, and publisher, announced a contest for 500 guinea (equivalent of $11,000 USD in 2021) for the best ‘Death of Nelson’ painting. It is not known if the clock’s detailed, hand-painted panels depicting the day of Nelson’s death were entered in this infamous contest. Also unknown is the true artist behind the longcase front wooden and glass panels. As the clock has been passed down throughout the generations, it has been recorded that the Irish painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) painted the panels as practice for the eight years he spent painting murals for Westminster Abbey.
What we do know is that the clock stills stands today and, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day and moonrise by moonset, it does its duty and reminds us of the simplicity of our task at hand. The clock has a consistent rhythm. It symbolizes the need for balance and harmony. The hourly chime is there so that we remember to centre ourselves, to do our duty and to seize the day.