The most incredible thing


Visitor notice: Royal Museums Greenwich is currently closed to visitors. For further information, or if you have queries about an existing booking, please click here

I’ve mentioned before how everything I do seems to end up relating to our longitude project. Last Wednesday, I went to a ballet at Sadler’s Wells in London, an adaptation by the Pet Shop Boys of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Most Incredible Thing. I did not know of this fairy tale previously, so didn’t know that the story’s hero is a clock maker! The modern adaptation of the story by Matthew Dunster, turns it into a particularly contemporary mixture of Communist state control and an X-Factor-style talent contest. The ballet starts with the citizens, like automatons, following the dreary round of their daily lives. The king proclaims a contest to find ‘the most incredible thing’ in the state, the reward for which will be half of the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage. After thousands of entries, the prize is won by ‘Leonardo’, a young clock maker who has invented and built an extraordinary tiny clock. This expands to produce 12 visions, which appear for each number of the clock: four seasons, five senses, seven deadly sins and so on. Leo is helped to construct it, alone in his impoverished studio, by the physical embodiments of his three muses: concentration, love and courage. After the clock is destroyed by ‘Karl’, the Orwellian villain of the piece, Leo is helped to reconstruct it by the same muses. The power of this act causes Karl’s death, and overturns his brief victory in the contest, in which his destruction of the wonderful clock becomes itself ‘the most incredible thing.’ The idea of the lone genius, aided by divine inspiration, creating an extraordinary one-off instrument which, once destroyed, can only be saved by further supernatural aid, is of course interesting to us in our ideas on John Harrison. I was especially struck by the idea that destroying such an object becomes itself an incredible act. Leo’s watch here became the ‘object of virtue’ par excellence. But, what particularly interested me was the representation of the incredible clock within the staging of the ballet. The physical object was a small, traditional pocket watch, not dissimilar from H4, which was treated as fragile and jewel-like, crushed simply in Karl’s hands in the destruction scene. Yet, in the invention scene, it expands into a wonderful paper ‘castle in the air’ dreamed up by Leo, and composed of cut-out paper showing parts and diagrams (see the photo gallery of the Sadler's Wells site), not unlike Harrison’s drawings in The Principles of Mr Harrison’s Time-keeper. Further, when the visions appear from the clock, they do so from a huge dial face-cum-projection screen which dominates the stage, and from which the images and dancers appear and expand. These representations and understandings of the clock were the twins of those I have been finding on the part of longitude pamphleteers in the eighteenth century.