A fine late 17th century ebony veneered quarter repeating table clock Thomas Tompion, London, number 244

James Stratton, Head of Clocks, talks to Andrew Currie about how he wound up at Bonhams

One Tuesday afternoon in May 2011, Bonhams Head of Clocks James Stratton opened an email from one of the company's European representatives. "The attached image was tiny and a little blurred," James recalls. "There was an ordinary suburban mantelpiece – a vase of flowers, some ornaments – and, in the centre, a clock. I stared at the screen and suddenly the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I'd only ever seen one like it before: an incredibly rare and famous masterpiece by the 17th-century father of English clockmaking, Ahasuerus Fromanteel. I seemed to be looking at its twin. I couldn't be 100 per cent sure from a photograph, of course. So, trying to keep calm, I had the clock sent to London. When I opened the crate, I knew my instinct was right."

The discovery caused a sensation – it was the equivalent for the clock world of discovering not just a lost Rembrandt, but one that nobody knew he had painted. The Cupid Clock, as it became known, was a previously unrecorded work by the master clockmaker.

Of immense historical importance, it sold later that year at Bonhams for £710,000, making it the most valuable clock James has
ever handled.

James's passion for clocks – and it is a passion – began when he was young. As he says, "I was surrounded by antiques from a very early age. They were my parents' great love, and our family weekends were spent browsing in antiques shops and fairs. A lot of young boys might have found that boring, but I loved it."

In the school holidays, James worked for an auctioneer near Bury St Edmunds. "It was a real old-fashioned sell-everything company. One day I'd be lotting up pigs for the weekly farmer's market, and the next hanging pictures and lugging furniture. Then, during my gap year, I got a job at an antiques centre. Six days a week – first in each morning and last out at night. I learned such a lot."

A course in Fine Arts Valuation at Southampton followed, and in 1993 James landed a job at what was then Phillips auction house, based in New Bond Street, in the Clock and Watch Department. "Almost as soon as I started, I knew I'd arrived," he says. "Everything about clocks appealed to me. From the intricacies of the movements to the very sound of the striking hours – it's wonderful to think these same sounds have been heard by generations of people we'll never know, but with whom we have this in common."

James's search for the next great clock takes him all over the world. As he points out, over the centuries so many factors – wars, emigration, colonisation – have dispersed people and their possessions, that it is not unusual to find clocks thousands of miles from where they were made. As he points out, "Clocks can turn up in the most unexpected places. I remember being called to a huge, grand but very run-down townhouse in Spain. We climbed the stairs into the ballroom, dodging cobwebs and the holes in the floor – very Miss Havisham. In a solitary dusty cupboard at the far end of the room was a clock. It was clearly French, and of exceptional quality. I took it back to London and embarked on what turned into many months of research, at the end of which we were able to show that it had been made specifically for Napoleon's great showcase exhibition, L'Exposition Publique des Produits de l'Industrie Française in 1801." The clock sold for £332,880.

"Like a violin that's never played, a clock is dead if it isn't used. This clock had been moved round the house willy-nilly for two centuries, without anyone paying it much regard. It was immensely satisfying to bring it back to life."

It is not just the history behind particular clocks that captures James's imagination. He is also deeply immersed in the history of horology itself. "It is easy to forget that clockmaking was a very competitive business," he says. "At the high end of the market, clocks were luxury items, and there was intense rivalry to produce better, more accurate timepieces. There were, of course, eureka moments – the invention of the pendulum, for example – but advances in technology tended to be incremental. As with Formula One racing cars today, clockmakers were continuously making minor adjustments to enhance performance and gain the extra edge. Tracing these changes is part of the appeal." Visitors to Bonhams New Bond Street will have a chance to immerse themselves in the history of horology when an astonishing collection of English clocks will be exhibited from 3 to 14 September.

But for now James is concentrating on his next sale in July. "I'm particularly excited by a late-17th-century table clock by one of the best-known makers of the time, Thomas Tompion. "Tompion's work is faultlessly designed, and his patrons, the crowned heads and nobility of Europe, were eager to buy the best clocks made anywhere in the world. This clock made in 1695 runs as well today as when new. Winding it each week, hearing its tick, is, for me, a direct connection back through the centuries."

Looking back over his journey from antique-crazy schoolboy to internationally respected expert, James reflects, "I discovered early on that with clocks, the more you know the more you realise how much there is to learn. Some days I feel I've only just begun. Clocks are endlessly fascinating, and I can't imagine my life without them now."

Andrew Currie is Deputy Director of Press.

Sale: Fine Clocks
Wednesday 11 July at 2pm
Enquiries: James Stratton +44 (0) 20 7468 8364

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