Tudor Time Machines: Clocks and Watches in English Portraits c.1530-c.1630
The clock was the most technologically advanced instrument of the Early Modern period. It seeped into contemporary imagination, becoming a symbol through which the world could be organised and understood. An abundance of English and Scottish portraits c.1530-c.1630 feature clocks and watches, but no previous studies have explored their meanings. Brief references to clocks as memento mori symbols overlook the rich place clockwork held in the period’s literary and imaginative culture. Tudor and Early Stuart literature abounds with clock metaphors, and this essay attempts a reconstruction of the ‘clockwork imaginary’ of the Early Modern patron classes, building from a systematic analysis of over 2,200 English texts and 22 ‘clock portraits’. These sources show that the timepiece incorporated but often went beyond vanitas symbolism, signifying wealth, virtuous commercial activity, religious devotion and self-control. Although present in Catholic and Protestant texts and portraits alike, the clock arguably has greater significance for proponents of ‘salvation by faith alone’; the one-way directional system, showing interior workings on the exterior, chimed with godly concerns to ‘know thyself’ and confirm one’s membership of the Elect. More broadly, the essay is a case study for a holistic approach to signification in Early Modern visual art.
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