Our Man in Foulby


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Richard blogged about his tourist trips to sites in Germany associated with Tobias Mayer back in 2011, so I thought it only fair to give John Harrison his turn in the spotlight. Last week I braved the snow in Yorkshire to head over to the neighbouring villages of Nostell and Foulby, where Harrison started life.

The plaque on the house where Harrison was born in Foulby, Yorkshire

First up on the visit, was the site of the house where Harrison was born. Sadly the house itself was demolished years ago, but a blue plaque on its replacement commemorates Harrison. It mentions his baptism in the local church, and his childhood in Foulby. I was interested in the nuanced language of the way it recounts Harrison’s work on longitude: ‘the inventor of the marine chronometer which first allowed the location of longitude at sea by mechanical means.’ Nice recognition that he wasn’t the only person involved, and that the chronometer wasn’t the only method in play. This house is on the road just next to the walls of the Nostell Priory estate. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Nostell belonged to the Winn family from the 1650s until the 1950s, and is most famous for its glorious Adam interiors and the best-archived and largest collection of Chippendale furniture in the country. All of the furniture was designed for Nostell, to work with the Adam interiors. Along with the painter Antonio Zucchi, these three were the dream team. The house also features one of the first longcase clocks made by Harrison, in 1717, with an almost entirely wooden mechanism. Seeing it alongside these iconic neo-classical, rococo, and chinoiserie interiors, is an apt reminder of how Harrison’s work developed alongside these changing fashions. Both Harrison and Chippendale started work at Nostell, before moving to London. It is tantalising to think that they might have known each other.

The face of Harrison's longcase clock at Nostell Priory.

The case of the Harrison clock is a Victorian replacement but the face and workings are original, and visible through glass panels in the sides. It is a prime piece at Nostell, which the room guides discuss with evident pride. Interestingly, though, I learnt that it has not always been at Nostell, as I had assumed, but was brought by the then Lord St Oswald (Rowland Winn was created 1st Baron St Oswald in 1885), in a sale in the nineteenth century and returned to its former home. This helps to remind us of the changing fortunes of Harrison’s timepieces, not always the beautifully conserved and cherished pieces that we expect today.