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Mar 4 / Simon

Art Movement

Since it was unveiled in 2008 John Taylor’s dazzling Corpus Clock has attracted and held spellbound thousands of visitors to Cambridge. But as the conception goes on the market at £1m each, would you be buying a personalised piece of inventive engineering, or a work of art?
The sculptor Matt Sanderson, one of the team that created the clock, is very clear about what he strives for. “As a public artist I want to create theatrical spectacles,” he says; “moving street theatre that changes, not just on the hour but every second”.
The Corpus Clock is that. It draws a constant audience that gasps at the terrible beauty of the grasshopper above the clock face; that points with the sudden realisation of how time is spelled out; that wonders at the subtle colours of the enamelling and the dancing gleam of the rippled golden face; and does everything but applaud a performance that never ends.
This clock is like no other. It tells the time, but not as you’ve ever experienced it. It tells of the birth of time, and its devourment. It tells of death, with a chime of chains and a coffin lid. It is mesmerising, and puzzling in its precision and apparent randomness, and its constant movement makes it seem to be alive. Like any work of art, it has to be seen because photographs and even film cannot do it justice.

The creature at its apogee is a hybrid with elements of a grasshopper but also of a hornet for its wings, a viper fish or its vicious jaws and teeth, a coelacanth’s eyes and a wasp’s sting. Matt has moulded it from steel and gold threads, the creature’s limbs encased in enamel created by Joan Mackarell; the irises and pupils Matt has cut and fused from coloured glass with the veins made from gold wire; the thighs are fashioned from hand-beaten copper and their shape based on artificial hips made for children – such precision fascinates him, his grandfather had been a maker of surgical instruments.
The grasshopper is a vital component of the clock, unveiled at the corner of Benet and Trumpington Streets in Cambridge by Professor Stephen Hawking in 2008 for the world to marvel at, but the clock is not the inspiration of the sculptor.
The creature is called the Chronophage. “eater of time”. a name coined not by Matt but the by the man whose dream the clock has been, a dream that has cost him £1m.
He is John Taylor, a Buxton-born engineer who 25 years ago invented the cordless kettle which has helped make his considerable fortune. But his fascination with mechanics, and particularly clocks, goes back many years before that.
He comes from a line of inventors. His father Eric had conceived the “Taylor Suit”, electrically heated overalls for Second World War bomber crews, and it was his company that John joined as a graduate trainee. He made a lot of inventions for the company – he has almost 400 European patents to his name – and succeeded his father as chairman. Moving to the Isle of Man in the 1970s, he joined Castletown Thermostats which he turned into  Strix, manufacturers of the kettle, from which he has now retired.
But to pursue his enthralment with the mechanics of time measurement he set up a horological development company, naming it after a 17th century firm of London clockmakers, and organised exhibitions on such key figures in clock history as Christiaan Huygens, inventor of the pendulum clock, and John Harrison.
As a pilot and a yachtsman himself, Dr Taylor knew of the enormous debt navigators owe to Harrison, and it was his invention that brought the Chronophage clock from the Taylor imagination. “I’m an inventor, so you set out to do something that hasn’t been done before; that’s what an invention is. Being interested in clocks I wanted to make my own, but what?” he says. “There’s been nothing new in mechanical clocks since Harrison’s, so I set out to discover one”.
John Harrison solved the longitude problem saving countless mariners’ lives. The Greeks had learned how to measure latitude, degrees north and south of the Equator, but there was no fixed point from which to measure east-west co-ordinates. The best means, Harrison knew, was by accurate time, but clocks in the early 18th century were notoriously inexact. They also needed to be lubricated regularly but the oil, made from natural materials, changed its nature in different temperatures, clogging up the works. Harrison’s invention required no lubrication.
Even the plain mechanics has romance. “The critical thing in a clock is the escapement between pendulum and the driving mechanism,” Dr Taylor explains. “The escapement was controlled by sliding levers which created friction. Harrison designed a mechanism with rocking levers that made no friction – the first mechanism in the world which requires no lubrication”, and the most accurate clock in the world for 150 years. Harrison’s rocking levers, touching the escape wheel on just two precise points to move the escapement, seemed reminiscent of the legs of a grasshopper, and so it became “the grasshopper escapement”.
Dr Taylor‘s Chronophage Clock takes Harrison’s invention further. “Ninety-nine people put of a hundred don’t know how a clock works, it’s all hidden away. My clock turns it inside out, with the escape wheel much larger than any before and it’s a part of what you see, moving at a pace controlled by the Chronophage’s feet.”
This clock is almost five feet in diameter, and like the Chronophage the face below is in perpetual motion. There are no hands or digital numbers, but instead small slits cut into the face at precise measurements according to a vernier scale as used since the 16th century in instruments such as sextants. Each slit has an optical lens, and they are in three concentric circles – 60 slits each in the outer and middle rings denoting minutes and seconds, 48 in the inner ring for the hours and quarter hours. Behind the face blue LED lights put out a glow as behind the face the escapement shifts steel rings in front of the bulbs, each with one more slit per circuit than on the face so the lights appear to be darting back and forth, finally finding the point in time they need at the exact instant. Everything about it is operated by the clockwork, even the macabre chime.
“All clocks do is tell the time and you try to make them as accurate as possible. I set out to make a clock which was fundamentally different – as accurate as a clock could be, but that would seem to stop and run backwards, and run slow and look as if it was caught up in the mechanism,” says the inventor. “You don’t expect clocks to do that, so the clock itself is playing with you.”
It was an inspiration born of a series of ideas which came together one morning in 2002, but he needed a team to bring it all together, in the best tradition of artists who use fabricator, from Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst to Takashi Murakami and Richard Serra . The first member was Stewart Huxley, director of a company of precision engineers near Cambridge, who had made components for Dr Taylor’s kettles. With industrial designer Gary Moore he put the Taylor drawings into metal, quickly built a prototype – and found it didn’t work: the swing of the pendulum was wrong for the huge escapement, so the amplitude had to be changed.
The sculptor and the enamellist had been brought together under the project management of a design consultant, Tyra Till. By this time, the aesthetics of the final piece were having as loud a voice as the engineering, with the bob of the pendulum, for instance, being much larger than the clockwork requires because it looked better in the whole ensemble, and the gold-plated steel had to be made paper thin to give the size without the weight. The face itself was originally to have been plain aluminium, but gold gave the opulent impression required.
Dr Taylor wanted the face should ripple, waves radiating from a single golden central drop at the Big Bang start of time out to infinity, and the team found the effect could be made only by a series of precision-controlled underwater explosions, and could be done at one place in Europe alone, in Holland. An engineering solution for an aesthetic effect.
At about the time the Chronophage clock was taking shape in his mind, John Taylor had decided to endow his Cambridge alma mater, Corpus Christi College, with a new undergraduate library in a former bank at the corner of the Corpus precincts. A listed building, the bank’s façade had to be kept while its interiors were completely remade for library use, but what to do with the now useless corner entrance door? The architects offered a number of solutions, from a portcullis representation to a decorative panel, none of which appealed to the College Fellows. They turned to Dr Taylor once more, and eagerly accepted his suggestion. His Chronophage Clock was to have a permanent home.
The team is still together, working on another Chronophage Clock this time for John Taylor himself. The new clock will be bigger and sit in its own atrium in the new house he and his wife are building on the Isle of Man. The concept has not changed, but details will – this Chronophage will spread its wings, for instance – because each clock is unique.
And the team will stay together, because interest in the first piece has been so great they have decided to open for commissions, the engineering and creative process applied to customers’ personal requirements. “Each one will be different, each one is a work of art, each one is a development of John’s original inspiration and each one will have the team’s creative thoughts in it,” says Matt Sanderson. “I can’t repeat anything, and if you ask me to make another Corpus Christi Clock you’ll have to find someone else to copy it, because I can’t. It needs to evolve.”
So is the Chronophage Clock art or science? See it, and listen to it – and find out, as thousands are doing every day, how its heartbeat chimes with your own. Then you will know.