Reflections on reality and mortality

In October 2017, as part of Nostell Priory’s The Clock Stops exhibition, I was asked to take part in a public debate and present an artist’s view on the following –

John Harrison’s clock has been ticking steadily for 300 years but sometimes now it stops. Should we replace worn parts or simply stop it to preserve its original state?

These are the notes from my presentation.


I have been asked to speak about The Clock Stops from the viewpoint of an artist.

This means I wish to talk about John Harrison as an artist and his clock as a work of art

This is always going to be a very subjective and personal point of view and I don’t wish to claim that any opinion I have here is more valid than anyone else’s.

I’ve tried to be factually correct and happy to stand corrected.

In an era of Fake News (where an opinion can be posted online that can soon be assumed to be a fact), we have to tread carefully.

When I started thinking about this question it was before I’d heard the previous speakers so I may be changing my opinion as I’m speaking these words…..but I probably won’t tell you….

So to form an opinion I have to examine;

What’s Real?

Does Setting Count in my experience of the clock?

What does to mean to me – as a work of art.

This approach is fraught with contradictions and everyone has their own opinions as to what an artist is and what a work of art is.

For quick reference and to add to the confusion we have the following options –

The historian Professor E H Gombrich wrote ‘There really is no such thing as art, only artists’

Tolstoy, in What is Art? wrote ‘An activity by means of which a person, (he actually said a man but I’ve changed his quote because I feel more comfortable saying that) having experienced a feeling, intentionally transmits it to others.’

Leonardo De Vinci wrote – ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’.

Though some claim is was Picasso – We are not sure.

For me, art is something that tells me something about the author, their view on the world and makes me examine and question that view in relation to me. Though ask me again tomorrow?

To view the clock as a work of art we move to look beyond its function and examine the reason for its creation, the intention of its creator and its meaning to people today.

Handmade by John Harrison in 1717, the early wooden longcase clock at Nostell is one of only three that have survived the centuries. This rare example of eighteenth-century craftsmanship is extra special to Nostell, as its maker was born in the estate village and went on to become one of England’s greatest inventors. Join us for a year of special birthday celebrations.

This is not one of his famous maritime pieces but its existence celebrates his craftsmanship and ambition.

If it was just a clock I would say fix it?

But it’s more.

If I want to tell the time we don’t come to Nostell Priory, if we want to discover a story, and see some extraordinary objects we do.

Let’s consider settings and reality.

Reality – we have all heard the apocryphal tale about the man who had a sweeping brush for his entire life. He replaced the handle when it broke. Then he replaced the head when it wore out, but it’s still the same brush.

Setting – Fountain is one of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous works and is widely seen as an icon of twentieth-century art. The original, which is lost, consisted of a standard urinal, usually presented on its back for exhibition purposes rather than upright, and was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’. Tate’s work is a 1964 replica and is made from glazed earthenware painted to resemble the original porcelain. The signature is reproduced in black paint. Fountain has been seen as a quintessential example, along with Duchamp’s Bottle Rack 1914, of what he called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art (and, in Duchamp’s case, interpreted in some way).

Because of it’s setting in a gallery it is considered sculpture and we certainly wouldn’t plumb it in.

Also, it’s not the actual work…it’s a replica and the same goes for Carl Andres Bricks or Equivalent VIII to give its proper title.

Does it have to be real to be of value?


Then there’s restoration –

Three examples

Leonardo Da Vinci

The last supper 1495-96.

‘By 1556—fewer than sixty years after it was finished—Leonardo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari described the painting as already “ruined” and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. By the second half of the sixteenth century Gian Paolo Lomazzo stated that “the painting is all ruined”. In 1652, a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognisable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the centre base of the painting.

A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural. This repair did not last well and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by an otherwise unknown artist named Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti’s work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage. In 1796, French revolutionary anti-clerical troops used the refectory as an armoury; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles’ eyes. 

Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged the centre section before realizing that Leonardo’s work was not a fresco. Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue.

Major restoration

The painting’s appearance by the late 1970s had become badly deteriorated. From 1978 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt and pollution. The 18th- and 19th-century restoration attempts were also reverted. Since it had proved impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate-controlledenvironment, which meant bricking up the windows. Then, detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting’s original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some areas were deemed unrestorable. These were re-painted using watercolor in subdued colors intended to indicate they were not original work, while not being too distracting.

This restoration took 21 years and, on 28 May 1999, the painting was returned to display. Intending visitors were required to book ahead and could only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colors, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beckprofessor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, had been a particularly strong critic.[15] Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, has also complained about the restored version of the painting. He has been critical of Christ’s right arm in the image which has been altered from a draped sleeve to what Daley calls “muff-like drapery”.[16]



The argument rages over whether the sleeve should be on or behind the table. I don’t think that is the important thing about The Last Supper.

We spend more time talking about the restoration than the meaning of the painting…..and I’m not even going to get into Dan Brown.

Aside – In the essay by Umberto Ecco, Travels in Hyperreality, he talks about the many waxworks museums there are in America that have a 3D waxwork of the Last Supper that advertise it as being more real than the original because it’s in 3D!

I’m not suggesting that today’s restorers would make such mistakes but who knows.


Rembrandt – The Night Watch

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,[1] also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but commonly referred to as The Night Watch

Early on thick varnish had been put on it which made the painting much darker than intended hence the name Night Watch where as in fact it was meant to be a day time scene.

For years people had criticised early copies of the work for not fully capturing Rembrandt’s beautiful night-time hues.

Then they took the varnish off and ….hey…there you go.


The Harvard Murals by Mark Rothko, painted in the early 1960s, were originally installed in a penthouse of the university’s Holyoke Centre in 1964. But the colours of the murals soon faded from exposure to direct sunlight, and each of the paintings faded in its own distinct way. A once-coherent collection had become disparate.

By projecting a photograph of the paintings with the colours artificially altered so that when they land on the painting they restore the colours to their original hue.

Who knows what we shall see in the future…


Which brings me back to this clock……

As it is it holds our attention, we marvel at the mechanism, the aged wood that it’s made from. It’s beauty. We can imagine John Harrison making it….we know it’s his work we are looking at. I think. It might be damaged, it might never work again…..but for us to truly value it as a work of art we have to know this experience is real.

I’ve never seen The Last Supper and if I do I don’t think I will be seeing it ….just looking at the restoration…..I’ve never seen The Night Watch but If I do I’d be pleased they took the varnish off and I can see the painting as intended.

I’ve never seen the Rothko murals, but if I did I’d marvel at the technology that restored the colours but be grateful I can still see Rothko’s brushwork.

And I’ll be probably thinking about all those things and not about how the art makes me feel.

I have seen Harrison’s Clock….I know pats have been replaced over the years. I don’t know what’s new and what’s old….


So what can this clock tell me about me?

I’ll leave that to my 10-year-old daughter when I asked her what should be done…..she replied-

“We can’t fix everything dad…..things stop, friendships, dreams, people. And you are getting old!”

She then went to play on the swings whilst kicking her sister.

If we keep in fixing the clock we are trying to extend its life, is it more real if it works, and in doing so we are in danger of altering the experience of those that look at it…we might not marvel at the original skill but at the attempts to keep it going. . We might not look at the clock and think of John Harrison but of the successive restorations.

We might question what is real.

And perhaps the lasting legacy of this clock….in striving to tell the time accurately we measure our own mortality and allow ourselves to reflect upon that. To accept what is real and what we should and shouldn’t do…..

And if John Harrison and this clock do that….. Then it truly is a great work of art and should be allowed to fulfil its final function…..and stop.

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