Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Clock, organ and mahogany case, c. 1740
This complex piece, combining several generations of additions, was largely the creation of the highly enterprising and ambitious clockmaker Charles Clay. In 1723 Clay had secured the post of Clockmaker to His Majesty’s Board of Works and provided the turret clock for St James’s Palace. He died in 1740.
The piece makes its focal point a rock-crystal casket by the Augsburg goldsmith Melchior Baumgartner, whose inscription (in German) is found on a panel inside the lid ‘I Master Melchior Baumgartner have made this casket in Augsburg and covered it with silver in the year 1664’. Also incorporated in the casket are forty panels of rock crystal, engraved with land- and sea-scapes – with the six principal panels of canted rectangular form and bevelled edges. The panels depict figures and houses in landscapes, while each side panel depicts a shipping scene, one during a calm, the other during a storm. The panels are divided by rock crystal columns with Corinthian capitals in silver-gilt. Almost all remaining areas are decorated by exquisite applied enamelled and silver-gilt mounts of fruiting swags and floral trails. At each angle in a shell-headed niche is a gilt bronze figure of a Greek goddess. Below the casket is a stepped pedestal containing both a clock and organ, which plays ten melodies, all but two of which correspond to settings composed by Handel.
The early history of the Augsburg casket is unknown, although Baumgartner is known to have supplied similarly elaborate pieces to the Bavarian and Brunswick courts . The piece is first noted in a London newspaper advertisement of 27 August 1743, in which Sarah Clay, widow of the clockmaker Charles Clay, announced the exhibition at Cecil Street, off the Strand, of ‘the most curious and valuable piece of clock work left by her late husband’ The Temple and Oracle of Apollo, and charging 1s per person to view. The entire ensemble is described in splendid language as it appears today (less the group of St George & the Dragon and the eponymous Apollo figure, now lost). This announcement suggests that it was through the agency of the maker / entrepreneur Charles Clay (or his widow’s) that the casket, clock-work and organ were assembled into its present, spectacular form.
In George IV's time, the seventeenth-century gilt-bronze group of St George and the Dragon by Francesco Fanelli was added to the top of the casket; and later in the nineteenth century Queen Victoria placed inside it the Bible of the great imperial hero and adventurer General Gordon, murdered at Khartoum in 1885.
Text adapted from The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714 - 1760, London, 1714