Palace Clocks

The clock collections of the Topkapı and Dolmabahçe Palaces are comprised of very special and highly artistic specimens that bear witness to the history of timekeeping devices. We take here a brief tour of the clocks in these palace inventories.

Then you stop to think that what a person is experiencing today will be history five years from now, you soon realize that the harshest realities of the past are often transformed into today’s dreams, the most exuberant dreams into immediate reality, and that tragedy can morph into truth and happiness into sadness. And during this transition from the one state into the other, formidable and unattainable objects and venues we cannot even imagine seeing are sometimes transformed into museum artifacts. Palaces are the living examples of this in our day.

A palace originally built for its panoramic view one day becomes a museum lamented for its dampness, an inventory of whose myriad profusion of artifacts is well nigh unimaginable. And the modern-day chronicler when he tries to describe that time becomes as fiercely unfair when decrying another as he is indulgent when speaking of himself. Which of his words is to be believed? People believe whatever they want, of course. The world after all is not a place where the truth is readily accessible but rather a place of concealment where things change their outward appearance with remarkable speed. Perhaps therefore we should have as much respect for every story to which we can relate, every story that constitutes a example, every story that makes life a little easier and more bearable, as we have for the truth.

Those who view the clocks in our Turkish palace inventories today are always asking questions, forever seeking a story. People often seem incapable of tolerating simplicity, placing more importance on the person who made the gift, his purpose in making it, the amount of money spent and the effect it created, thereby glossing over the work of art itself. This in turn constitutes an obstacle to real learning. I on the other hand am contented to look at the clock face and how the clock works. As with any lovingly entered endeavor, one first encounters a wide vista of interesting questions; the next stage is to learn to endure the demands of this challenge and lose oneself in it. The collection discussed here is comprised of the mainly French clocks dating to the early or mid-19th century in the Ottoman palaces and pavilions (Dolmabahçe Palace, Küçüksu Pavilion, Aynalıkavak Pavilion, and Ihlamur Pavilion) administered by the Department of National Palaces.

Being an age of mechanical progress and the transition to mass production, the 19th century saw the production of large numbers of very ordinary clocks as well as of extraordinary ones. But simultaneously with a rise in run-of-the mill production, a new burst of creativity and flawless workmanship and a profusion of skilled craftsmen thrust the names of certain masters into the foreground, making it obligatory that the clock maker’s name be remembered. And this in turn became the criterion of quality. Nevertheless, in a period that lasted to the end of the 17th century the clock itself had been regarded as a powerful and important object even without the clock maker’s name. Such in any case was the time, a period when there were things to which those without consummate skill could not even aspire. Since every period of growth and abundance also brings an increase in the numbers of those making often hair-splitting appraisals, a burning nostalgia arises for times when there were only ten important artifacts in existence and all were works of art.

If we exclude the six Ottoman clocks, as well as some English automatons, some very high-quality French clocks with special mechanisms and the clock cases made by the period’s renowned painters, sculptors and workers in cast metal, the close to 300 clocks in the National Palace collection are quite typical of their time and place. Standing on a console or hanging over a fireplace with their keys hanging around their necks like a ‘taylasan’ and their chimes sounding on the hour and half hour, they were in keeping with the taste and concepts of their time. The French ‘comtoise’ clocks that stood either in large salons or at the ends of corridors functioned with infallible accuracy, giving those who came and went a sense of dignity and permanence with their loud chimes that announced the time, sometimes down to the quarter hour.

Modest yet as if cognizant of their surroundings, wooden American wall clocks, mainly non-chiming with 30-day calendars, Vienna regulator clocks, German steamship clocks and the, again, wooden barometer-thermometers that went with them hung or stood in rooms used as libraries or clerk’s chambers where they blended right in with the books, desks, secretaires and escritoires. The clocks used in bedrooms, meanwhile, included some without chiming mechanisms, others with a string one could pull on in the dark without turning on the light that announced the time down to the quarter hour by chiming, stylish porcelain clocks with often naive decorations, the ever more diminutive alarm clocks that came into use from the beginning of the 20th century, elegant Swiss cruiser clocks, tiny French travel clocks, and minuscule round table clocks in ivory or mother-of-pearl cases.

Like their counterparts in the palaces and museums of Europe, the Renaissance automatons have unfortunately vanished. This is undoubtedly a very significant loss even if we assume it had something to with these clocks’ very heavy, complicated mechanisms and the fact that the people of the time believed their tenure in this world only transitory.

When we compare them with the most rare examples of clocks made since the beginning of the 1600’s, the clocks made by eminent masters such as Breguet, Lange & Sohne, and Glassütte constitute the gems of the collection. In addition to the clocks made by the imperial clock masters, giant automatons, a large and extremely rare collection of pocket watches, and the highly fanciful clocks of the prominent 17th and 18th century masters with their other-worldly organ chimes, each one representing its maker’s skill and inner world of feelings and exhibiting little outside influence, all reflect the introverted attitude of the imperial palace at the time.

The imperial clock masters strove to keep all the palace clocks accurate and in good repair. Chief Clock Masters were also employed in the Dolmabahçe Palace from the late 19th century up to the founding of the Republic. We do not know today however which of them were actual clock makers and which merely repairmen. There is of course a world of difference between making clocks and repairing them, a difference of skill, intellect and mechanical design. Approaching the question in terms of degree, however, we come across the names of ten masters in the Topkapı Palace who were able to perform this work at the highest level.

Artists in general desire to be held in high regard and for their names to be remembered and their work to be exalted to the highest degree. And we countenance this in them in the belief that if one person appears out of thousands with such aspirations he must know something. The Artist promotes his name and his work through what he makes. He defends his work as do others on his behalf. We recognize him immediately, alive or dead, because he has a greatness that beyond that of the world, and others regard as themselves as paltry and insignificant beside him. It almost tempts one to think sinful thoughts about how such worldly pride will be met in the Hereafter. The Artisan’s job on the other hand is exactly the opposite: the profession of being invisible, the task of repairing the damage the Artist’s work has suffered by adapting completely to him, to the century in which he lived, to his techniques and materials and the conditions under which he worked, rendering that damage invisible and never letting on that the work has been touched by another hand. Resurrecting a supreme ego through utter self-effacement. And this in turn elevates the humble Artisan’s worldly achievement almost to the other-worldly realm. For the Artisan’s concealment of what he has done, his anonymity, and the absence of any trace of his life’s work raise him in the end to the level of the clock’s original maker. Like alms given in secret, it is as if this accumulates, again invisibly, in other places, endowing him with a secret wealth. The Artisan has no apparent riches, nevertheless he leads a quiet, tranquil existence, from which he is prepared at any moment to depart without regret.