Emily Aleev – Snow
Louise Violet Beatrice, Lady Loraine, bequeathed a very particular clock to the V&A upon her death in 1970. Made c. 1790, this large table clock’s elaborately painted wooden casing is topped with cut-glass and gilt-brass ornamentation suggesting a fantasy architecture of minarets and crescent moons. The white enamel dial is marked with hours and minutes in Arabic numerals.
Lady Loraine was the wife of Sir Percy Lyham Loraine (1880-1961), a Turkish-speaking diplomat who served in Turkey twice, and the clock was most likely acquired by the couple during one of those tours. So far, this sounds like a typical story of a couple returning from their time abroad with a luxuriously ‘exotic’ souvenir. As it happens, the situation with this clock is not nearly so straightforward: it was crafted and assembled in London specifically for the Ottoman market, and it seems Lady Loraine made the decision to bring it back to the place of its making.
The clock case’s paintings of fruit, flowers and foliage, as well as its cut-glass domes and spheres and crescent-topped gilt-brass finials, are representative of British craftsmen’s perceptions of a decorative scheme appealing to the taste of Ottoman customers. Along with Arabic notations of the hours and minutes – of a type common to British clocks and watches made for the Ottoman market – the clock’s face bears the inscription, ‘George Prior / London’.
George Prior was one of the most significant of the many British clockmakers who supplied clocks and watches for the Ottoman market in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, trading through British merchants established in Ottoman ports. British diplomats had begun presenting watches and clocks as gifts to Ottoman officials in the late seventeenth century in order to break into an Ottoman market for European timepieces that was already dominated by French and Swiss models. The eventual success of this endeavor was such that Ottoman demand for British timepieces prompted the formation of lucrative export businesses like that of George Prior. Prior was himself a trained clockmaker, but his operation grew so large that he bought clocks and watches from wholesalers – such as the clockmaker John Thwaites, whose name is engraved on the movement of Lady Loraine’s clock – and then signed and sold them under his own name. British clocks and watches signed by Prior were apparently in such demand and so well known within the Ottoman Empire that the word ‘pyrol’, a version of the name ‘Prior’, came into use to denote a British-made watch.
Such considerable demand among Ottomans for European timepieces like Lady Loraine’s clock raises questions about the factors that were driving this demand, and how these objects might be placed within the broader technological and intellectual context of the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period. The Ottoman Empire was possessed of a rich technological and scholarly tradition, including horology, which continued alongside the influx of timepieces and other scientific instruments from abroad. How might we characterize Ottoman responses to European timepieces? Or Lady Loraine’s response to coming across a British-made clock tailored for the Ottoman market? Understanding exactly why the Ottomans wanted European clocks and watches, how they were using them, and how they perceived them; and how British people might have perceived those timepieces over a century later – those are all complex questions requiring more in-depth research.
Asking those questions, however, creates the opportunity to think about the all-important attitude or perspective of the historian when it comes to embarking upon such a project. When creating global histories of technology – evaluating interactions between cultures dealing with the adoption, adaptation or rejection of ideas, designs or objects, or why an idea or object might develop and flourish in certain locations but not others – there has been an unfortunate tendency among some historians, even in a few recently published works, to perhaps not dig deeply enough into the specific contexts of these interactions. The words ‘novelty’ or ‘trinket’ might be overused when describing enthusiastic non-European interest in a European object (as has sometimes been the case when describing the Ottoman desire for European timepieces); the non-European rejection of a European technology might be considered a failure of intellect or curiosity; or European interest in non-European objects and ideas might be termed a preoccupation with the ‘exotic’ or ‘quaint’. Such characterizations represent a failure to take into account the complex contexts of all aspects of these interactions (including the particular subjectivities of the historian doing the work) – and the results are condescending, contain disturbing overtones of cultural or ethnic exceptionalism, and are certainly obstructive to more meaningful inquiry. These ingrained narratives might be feeding into further misconceptions, and as such are ripe for reevaluation, especially through a reexamination of the objects involved.
If one recontextualises the interactions between British clockmakers and Ottoman customers as a design interaction, in which the behavior of each party effects a design collaboration, the development and agency of the objects involved may in turn shed new light on the agency of the ‘designers’. Our V&A/RCA colleague Hannah Lee has done just that in a past Object of the Week article summarizing her work on the glass trade beads European explorer and traders gave to peoples in the Americas and Africa in exchange for furs, ivory, slaves and other commodities. While the beads have traditionally been held up simply as a representation of a Eurocentric historic and economic narrative in which the ‘naive’ acceptance of the beads by indigenous peoples allowed for the attainment of high profit margins by the ‘dominant’ Europeans, Hannah’s research has revealed that the beads’ design process suggests agency on both sides of the exchange; a dialogue between producer and consumer in which ‘European traders were having to produce a product which was acceptable within diverse and discerning markets, whilst having to meet the demands of varied local tastes’.
Well, then. I hadn’t intended for this article to sound quite so severe, but my research this past year has caused me to reflect constantly on the seemingly-obvious fact that context and nuance are present in any interaction globally and throughout time; to the point where reading, for example, that the Ottomans considered European clocks to be expensive novelty toys, is like waving a red cape in front of a bull – must dig deeper, must research further! Really, though, I think this gets at something fundamental about why the the attitude with which we go about the process of doing history matters, and is maybe worth getting a bit worked up about: because it is the responsibility of historians – and everyone’s responsibility, truly, as human beings with intellectual curiosity – to remember the importance of nuance and context, and one’s own subjective stance, and consider accordingly. To do that is to hopefully not only be able to inquire more sensitively into issues surrounding histories of technology sharing, but to also gain a deeper understanding of each other across time and space – a novelty, indeed.
Seminar, ‘Quantifying and Explaining Diplomatic Gifts: the Case of Ottoman-British Relations in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Michael Talbot, 24 January 2013.
 Description of the Loraine clock and George Prior from http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O52937/bracket-clock-george-prior/, which cites Ian White, English Clocks for the Eastern Markets; English Clockmakers Trading in China and the Ottoman Empire 1580-1815 (Ticehurst: Antiquarian Horological Society, 2012).
 Brian Ogilvie, ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’, American Scientist, September-October 2011, Volume 99, Number 5, p. 415. http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/curiouser-and-curiouser.
 Hannah Lee, ‘Venetian Glass Trade Beads: Object Agency and the Global Renaissance’, Unmaking Things, http://unmakingthings.rca.ac.uk/2014/venetian-glass-trade-beads-object-agency-and-the-global-renaissance/.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Emily Aleev-Snow –
Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.
© Emily Aleev-Snow 2014. All Rights Reserved