Ground-breaking work to restore 250-year-old Anglesey Abbey clock completed

Conservators at West Dean College use digital technology to bring a Chinese Pagoda automation clock back to working order

This rare musical clock made in London circa 1760 and exported to Beijing in the late 18th century is part of the National Trust Collection at Anglesey Abbey which is famous for its important collection of clocks.

Initial investigations revealed that the clock mechanisms were suffering from continuous wear and tear. The mechanisms for playing music and rotating three decorative ‘pineapple’ ornaments had become so delicate that conservators at the College agreed with Trust staff to incorporate digital technology to reproduce the music, rather than expose the clock to further duress.

The three-year project was led by ICON accredited clock conservator Matthew Read who is Clocks Programme Leader at West Dean with postgraduate student Brittany Cox, who carried out much of the conservation cleaning and maintenance of the object including preparation of the original project report. John Butt and Mark Record designed and prototyped and made the electronics elements of the new control mechanism and John Leonard who digitally recorded the original music.

The rare musical clock made in London circa 1760 and exported to Beijing in the late 18th century and now part of the National Trust Colection at Anglesey Abbey

Read said The Pagoda Clock project challenges the parameters of what is understood as conservation and puts West Dean College and the National Trust at the forefront of boundary-pushing conservation of dynamic objects. “The challenge in conserving this historical clock was in making the digital drive movement to interface with the historic mechanism and without causing alteration, using traditional clock-making practices,” he said. “It is important that new conservation work does not alter the original, historic features. The aim is to ensure that our work can be reversed at any time in the future to preserve the integrity of the object for future generations.”

He believes that bringing a clock to life deepens not only the understanding of the specific object, but adds a dimension to the visitor experience in museums and galleries.

Read will be talking at the Museums + Heritage Show, which takes place at Olympia on 29-30 April, in the Collections stream where he will be challenging the more conventional conservation view by looking at the benefits and risks of conserving and displaying moving objects to engage and excite museum visitors, rather than relying on hi-tech interpretation to provide a satisfying museum experience.

West Dean College has an international reputation for teaching conservation – for full information and funding options click here.