Pyke Organ Clock Project: An Eighteenth Century Moving Picture

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By Jonathon Kelly.

This post continues a series on the conservation-repair work and the historical research on the George Pyke organ clock at West Dean College in 2014. This is the first of two posts on the automata dial.

The Pyke organ clock has a multi-layered painted iron dial which shows a view of life in the eighteenth century. Rather than being just a decorated clock dial to show the hours or date, it is an extension of the organ movement. The dial has automata that are driven by the movement as the music plays. It was clearly designed to entertain; telling the time was a minor part of this clock's purpose.

Fig 1. The Pyke organ clock movement showing the painted dial layers with automaton figures, white enamel clock dial and gilt mounts.

The dial is an assembly of beautifully decorated parts and functional gears and levers to bring it to life. From the front the scene presented gives some insight into life and thinking of that period. The moving figures together with the painting and the layering give an impression of depth to the scene.

Fig 2. Front view of the dial with contrasting classical and eighteenth century scene.

The dial is made up of four layers. The front layer is dominated by high quality gilded cast and chased brass mounts showing a classical scene with recognisable mythological figures such as Apollo, Diana and seven Muses.

Fig 3. Front layer mounts. At the fore, gilt brass mounts depicting a classical scene and the clock dial centrally positioned.

The classical scene is set against and contrasts with a painted eighteenth century scene. These two scenes frame the relatively small clock dial in the centre.

Fig. 4. The village scene with automata. On the left two violinists, a cellist and a man who stands up as the music plays, nods his head and sits when the music finishes. On the right a lady in pink curtseys as an older woman reads her palm. On the far right is a workman using a grindstone.

The second layer shows a bridge over a mill pond. The automata between the first and second layer is a dog chasing a duck across a pond. The mill wheel is automated as is the water through the mill race, to good effect.

Fig 5. Second, third and fourth layers showing a pond, a bridge and further back the river estuary. Automata are between each layer.

Fig 6. A closer view of the second and third layers showing a water mill and bridge. Automata: a dog chases a duck across a pond. The mill wheel turns and the water flows through the mill race. People and animals walk across the bridge.

The water flowing through the mill race is achieved by using a painted wheel rotating behind a section of the dial showing rocks and trees.

The third layer goes further into the distance, turning to a more maritime scene.

Fig 7. Third and fourth layers. Automata shown: ships move across the water between rolling water effect rods.

Between the third and fourth layer are moving ships heading out across the water. These are set between two painted brass rolling rods which rotate at different speeds. The effect is that of moving water and waves.

It is quite possible the dial contains allegorical meaning which would have meant something to those in the position to purchase such an item as the Pyke clock.

Questions can be asked such as: why place a classical scene in such a prominent place? What does this mean in the context of the painted scene of the period? Does the inclusion of fortification and the chain across the river on the painted dial refer to some significant historical event in the minds of people of the period?

Behind the dial.

Looking behind the dial starts to reveal the secrets about how it all works. The organ movement drives most of the automata as it plays music. The train of gear wheels and levers on the left are driven from the lower right wheel by the organ movement gear train (not shown).

Fig 8. The automaton gear wheels and levers. On the left side is the main gear train that drives individual figures, the chains carrying the dog and duck, the people and animals and the ships with the rollers. This is all driven by the organ movement from the bottom right gear wheel.

The levers on the lower right hand side of Figure 8 operate the two violinists and the man who stands and nods with the music. These levers are lifted by vertical metal connecting rods (not shown in Fig. 8) connected to special keys mounted just above the music pin barrel. These keys are lifted by dedicated rows of pins on the music pin barrel, which is situated on the top of the organ and behind the dial.

Fig 9. Three keys connecting the barrel pins to the figures through vertical rods and levers on the back of the dial.

The next post will look more closely at the working parts and some of the issues encountered, the condition of the dial and the treatment carried out.

You can follow the project here on the blog and on Twitter @pykewestdean