Sundials – History and Inspiration

Video Transcript

So last video I talked about the nature and the inspirations that I find in my garden. Today I'm going to be explaining my passion, obsession with sundials and the mechanics of the cosmos.

Balliol College sun and moon dial

This is a sundial that I was commissioned to make in 2009 and it was to celebrate 30 years of women undergraduates being admitted to Balliol [College, Oxford University]. It’s a moon dial so it takes its function from the passage of the moon, the cycle of the moon. It also tells the time by the light of the day, by the solar time. But it has this additional element of being able to tell the time for three or four days either side of the full moon when there's enough light generated. It's effectively the Earth divided into 15-degree increments. So, hourly intervals. But it takes its inspiration from man's awareness and understanding of the passage of time, or the passage of heavenly bodies.

So the sun being very obvious moves through the sky at a certain speed but the moon has its own trajectory and orbit. But its man’s understanding, or man's relationship with these bodies and their orbits – constantly seeking inspiration from them, trying to analyse what they are doing, trying to make sense of their passage through the heavens, so they become imbued with ethereal, oracle-like status. They were the God's millennia ago.

The joy of this is that this is a very simple representation of the Earth taking its inspiration from the moon, and hopefully telling the time for many generations to come

Armillary sphere at Trinity College, Oxford

This is an armillary sphere, here at Trinity College, Oxford. I particularly love the armillary, I think its because it was the first piece that I made – first sculpture, first sundial that I made. And it embodies everything about man's quest to make sense of the cosmos, of the heavens around him.

Ptolemy was a philosopher-astronomer, and concluded that the Earth was fixed, and the heavenly bodies moved around us. He had the earth at the centre of the heavenly bodies.

What we have here is the angle that the sun travels at for this latitude, and it travels at the equatorial plane. Here we are at 51° north, and it sets in the West. The gnomon – the polar axis – points to the North Star. The joy of it is that on a daily basis, this gnomon rod casts a shadow on the time-telling hour band and gives you a very accurate constant reading of time, weather permitting.

Inspired by philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians

I guess I'm inspired by the philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians of different cultures, from different millennia, all of whom were looking at the heavens and trying to make sense of it. We have the advantage of being able to look down from the heavens onto our planet earth, and to look way beyond the wildest stretches of our imagination. I am using this incredible knowledge from history to inspire my creations and my sculptures.

How the passion for sundials started

So 28 years ago a friend arrived from France with an armillary sphere, made probably in the 1920s, in the back of his van. He showed it to me, and from that moment on I became obsessed with sundials and the mechanics of the heavens. And that very day I came to Oxford, I came to the Museum of the History of Science and I think the curators could see that I was a man obsessed, if you like, they actually let me take some of the pie – some of the sundials out of the cases and measure them. I actually bought a book Sundials: Their Theory and Construction, and that's been my Bible ever since

I bought some metal, and by the end of that day I started making one. It was a frenzy of creativity, if you like, and luckily for me I managed to sell it at the end of the week when it was finished. I then went back to the client who’d bought it and asked him to swap it out for a new one, because I was so embarrassed by the quality. But that was the start of this love affair with the cosmos, the love affair with man's interaction with the heavens.

So do keep an eye out on our Instagram channel for more news, videos, and musings, and in the meantime, stay safe, stay creative.


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