A moment in time: clocks and time in paintings 1

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience (1851-53), oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Have you noticed how unusual it is to see a clock or similar timepiece in a painting? Since the middle of the twentieth century we’ve been surrounded by them. Not content with the versatile Apple watches on our wrist we still have clocks on the wall, mantlepiece, and embedded in almost every appliance that we use. When it comes to paintings, though, clocks are hard to come by.

One painting went further than a mere clock and included signs which can be used to pinpoint its exact time and location in the galaxy.

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William Dyce (1806–1864), Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (c 1858), oil on canvas, 635 cm x 889 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 shows a family holiday visit to this bay on the Kent coast as the sun is setting. Although not easily seen in this image, there’s a small point of light high in the middle of the sky which is Donati’s comet, not due to return until 3811. Couple that with the inclination of the sun and the state of the tide, and you should be able to place this view precisely in both time and space, and confirm that it does show this bay on 5 October 1858.

Astronomical clocks like that are exceedingly rare, but you might have thought sundials would be not infrequent.

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Beata Beatrix (c 1864–70), oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rossetti-beata-beatrix-n01279

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, from about 1864-70, is one of a few major paintings including a sundial. Here the artist uses it to help locate this image to the city of Florence, with the Ponte Vecchio in the background, at nine o’clock in the morning, the moment of death of its subject, Beatrice Portinari.

Clocks can also be a source of great confusion. Take that painted by Domenico Maroli in this work from about 1655.

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Domenico Maroli (1612–1676), Euclid of Megara Dressing as a Woman to Hear Socrates Teach in Athens (c 1655), oil on canvas, 139.5 x 223.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Its title is given as Euclid of Megara Dressing as a Woman to Hear Socrates Teach in Athens, which is baffling enough. Given that Euclid of Megara lived between about 435-365 BCE, the ornate clock at the upper right corner appears to be something of an anachronism, if you’ll pardon the pun. No one is too sure of the time that such clocks first appeared, but it must have been around 1500 years later, at least.

It gets worse, though. Euclid of Megara was a real figure, a minor Greek philosopher and a pupil of Socrates. He ended up wearing women’s clothing because citizens of Megara were banned from entering Athens, so in order to hear his master’s teaching, Euclid of Megara dressed as a woman and entered that city after dark.

But Marolì confused that Euclid of Megara with the much better-known Euclid of Alexandria, the famous mathematician and geometer, and surrounded the minor philosopher with everything you might associate with the other Euclid, including the anachronistic clock.

If there’s one artist you can rely on to include clocks in paintings it’s William Hogarth, whose moralising stories often rely heavily on time.

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William Hogarth (1697–1764), A Harlot’s Progress: 3 Apprehended by a Magistrate (engraving 1732 after painting c 1731), engraving, 31 x 38 cm, British Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In his third painting in A Harlot’s Progress, Apprehended by a Magistrate (c 1731), he documents Moll’s descent to common prostitution. Her bed is the only substantial piece of furniture in the room. Her maid is floridly syphilitic, with black pox marks on her face and a sunken bridge to her nose. She keeps a cat, who poses in the manner of her mistress at work.

She’s surrounded by symbols of her evil, such as the black witches hat and broomstick, and above the bed is a wig-box belonging to a highwayman who was hanged on 11 May 1730. At the right, in the background, Sir John Gonson, a famous magistrate, is entering with three armed bailiffs to make her arrest. Meanwhile she’s showing off a new and expensive pocket watch.

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William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Noon (1736), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 62.2 cm, the Ancaster Collection at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England. Wikipedia.

In his series Four Times of the Day, Hogarth shows us the clock of Saint Giles in the Fields to set this scene at Noon (1736). This is Hog Lane, in the slums around that church, and it’s Spring, as a group of Huguenots are leaving the French Church (now in Soho); they had arrived as refugees during the 1680s, and engaged in silk and related trades, hence their fashionable dress and decorum.

Opposite is a contrasting group of Londoners outside a pie shop: a black man fondles the breast of a woman holding a pie, which is about to fall as quickly as her virtue. In front of her a young boy bawls over his pie, which has broken, dropping fragments to feed a beggar below. The body of a dead cat rests on the dividing line between the two groups.

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William Hogarth (1697–1764), The Third Stage of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder (1751), line engraving on thick, white, smooth wove paper, 35.6 x 29.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT (Gift of Patricia Cornwell). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

My third image by Hogarth comes from his Four Stages of Cruelty, from 1751. The third, Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder,
takes place in the dead of night, 0105 by the church clock, in a graveyard. The ‘hero’ of the series Tom Nero has been apprehended by local people at the dead body of a woman, who turns out to be his pregnant partner. Her throat has been cut to the point of almost severing her neck, and she also has deep cuts at the left wrist and on the left index finger. That finger points to an open book which reads “God’s Revenge against Murder”, and next to that is the book of Common Prayer. By her body is a box of her valuables, bearing her initials “A G” for Ann Gill, and a bag containing stolen goods.

On the ground around Tom is a pistol, a couple of presumably stolen pocket watches, and one of the group of men restraining him holds a letter from the dead woman.

My final painting for today is a descendant of Hogarth’s visual stories, and one of the earliest major works to lack narrative closure.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience (1851-53), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hunt-the-awakening-conscience-t02075

William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, painted during the period 1851-53, assembles its story from a multitude of clues in its image.

It shows a fashionable young man seated at a piano in a small if not cramped house in the leafy suburbs of London. Half-risen from the man’s lap is a young woman who stares absently into the distance. They’re clearly a couple in an intimate relationship, but conspicuous by its absence is any wedding ring on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand, which is at the focal point of the painting. This is, therefore, extra-marital.

Around them are signs that she’s a kept mistress with time on her hands. Her companion, a cat, is under the table, where it has caught a bird with a broken wing, a symbol of her plight. At the right edge is a tapestry with which to while away the hours, and her wools below form a tangled web in which she is entwined. On top of the gaudy upright piano is a clock, its face turned away but apparently showing the time as five to twelve, on a fine sunny day.