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SUNDIALS ' A LOST HERITAGE …?

In a country that boasts some seven hundred listed learned and professional societies, including over thirty bearing the prefix ‘Royal’, it is not likely to excite the attention of the general readership to learn that there is such a society committed to antiquarian clocks. However, it may well come as something of a surprise for them to know that there is an organisation in the United Kingdom that is devoted to the study of sundials, namely the British Sundial Society. It may be even more of a surprise to find that, to date, there are eighteen established national sundial societies, scattered around the globe, including one in Japan, as well as a fledgling organisation in New Zealand and embryo societies in Hungary, Pakistan and Poland.

How then can there be so much interest in what most people think of as a somewhat rare; but rather dull garden ornament, namely the common or garden horizontal sundial, mounted on a stone pedestal, situated on the lawn of a stately home? This instrument comprises a horizontal brass or bronze plate, delineated with hour-lines and engraved with numerals, featuring a perpendicular triangular device with a sloping edge, aligned with the polar axis of the earth, the shadow of which indicates the time. So, perhaps the answer lies in the history of this fascinating scientific instrument, the purpose of which was to regulate the household clocks and watches of the owner, and in the fact that there are many different classes and forms of sundial. These fall into two main categories, either fixed or portable. The latter are those which, nowadays, are to be found in the collections of museums and private individuals, which were once carried by travellers on their journeys from place to place, even at sea and around the world. The former are those which may be placed on a building, or a pillar, set up on a pedestal, or laid out on the ground.

The origins of the sundial go far back into antiquity; but the earliest to be found in Britain date from Saxon times, although evidence suggests that they were brought to this country by the Romans. These dials were of the vertical kind, finely sculptured and carved, although they were far from being precise and few examples remain extant today. Their function was principally religious, to determine the times of church services, as laid down by canon law. In the so-called ‘dark ages’ of the mediaeval period, this form of sundial degenerated into the rather crudely incised ‘scratch’ dial or mass dial, to be found on many historic churches scattered about the country. However, probably at sometime in the late 15th century, sundials of a more accurate nature were introduced into England. These had their origins in the scientific discoveries and inventions of outstanding Arabic astronomers, whereby the indicator or gnomon of the dial was inclined parallel to the polar axis of the earth, thus indicating equal hours, in the system which is in use throughout the world today.

In the reign of King Henry VIII, the so-called Art of Dialling, that is to say the design and construction of sundials, had taken root and was beginning to grow into a flourishing scientific art. At the suggestion of Sir Thomas Moore, Henry invited Nicholas Kratzer, the Bavarian diallist, to his court and appointed him to be the King’s Horologer. Kratzer was no doubt responsible for introducing multiple sundials into England, such sundials incorporating a surprisingly large number of smaller component dials in one large ornate edifice. Henry himself had a vertical sundial placed on the south-facing wall of Nonsuch Palace, as well as ordering some twenty of more horizontal sundials for his garden at Hampton Court! Sundials became fashionable, as well as having the practical function of indicating the time in sunny weather. By the late 17th century, this mathematical art had probably reached its zenith, when it was virtually a university subject and when every educated gentleman was expected to have an understanding of this discipline. Apart from those forms of sundial already mentioned
horizontal, vertical and multiple – the other principal classes include equinoctial dials, such as are aligned in the plane of the celestial equator, polar dials, aligned in the plane of the earth’s polar axis, and numerous ancillary groupings. Perhaps the most prolific was the vertical dial, or rather the vertical declining sundial, since most of this class were on walls that were not facing a cardinal point of the compass.

Sundials continued to be used for the purposes of regulating clocks and watches throughout the 18th century. Only in the 19th century, with the advent of the railways and the electric telegraph, did there popularity start to decline; but it was not until the early 20th century that they were finally eclipsed as a useful scientific instrument. Many were allowed to fall into disrepair, particularly vertical dials on walls, although common or garden horizontal sundials still retained their ornamental appeal. Remarkably, however, there was a European renaissance in this science of gnomonics or the mathematical art of dialling, such that, in 1989, the British Sundial Society was founded by a small group of enthusiasts. The Society quickly grew into the established organisation that it is today, with some five-hundred members.

The British Sundial Society welcomes all those who are interested in sundials or related matters, whether as professional sundial designers and makers, mathematicians, artists, sculptors, letter-carvers, amateurs in the field, or those who love the mottoes that are often found on dials. The Society’s objects include the advancement of public education in this scientific art, advising on the restoration of sundials and, mindful of our sundial heritage, the cataloguing of the existing dials throughout the British Isles. In addition to publishing an attractive Bulletin, it organises meetings and a major conference every year, which are interesting, enjoyable and friendly occasions. New members may judge for themselves as to whether our sundial heritage has really been lost!

The full feature will appear in the Spring 2010 edition of GPSJ.

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