Antiques & Collecting: Talking about Antiques

A 'find' in a wardrobe in Borrowash provided one of those rare moments that antique experts treasure. Max Craven reports ...

Sometimes, just sometimes, one finds a great treasure in a most unlikely place. For an auctioneer, there’s an added piquancy in having an opportunity to sell said treasure for the best possible price. If the treasure has a local resonance, too, then it becomes especially memorable.

Such a situation arose earlier this year when a friend working at Bamfords auction house in Derby was clearing a very ordinary pre-war semi-detached house in Borrowash. He was shown a barometer, stored behind a wardrobe and asked if it ought to be consigned to the skip. He suggested it might do quite well at auction and should be held over for the spring fine art sale.

He had saved a great treasure, for the item was a mahogany cased George II angle barometer, a pretty rare object from any point of view. Having got the very dirty and completely original object back to the saleroom, he managed to read the maker’s signature through the fluff in the glass covering the silvered scale: WHITEHURST/DERBY/1757.

John Whitehurst FRS was a clockmaker, scientist and natural philosopher. He was the eldest of the seven sons of Congleton clockmaker John Whitehurst, and was born in 1713. He was apprenticed to his father in 1727 and in 1734 left to visit Ireland, London and other places before setting up in Derby in 1736, gaining his freedom of the Borough in September 1737. He lived at 22 Iron Gate, Derby until 1764 and thereafter at 27 Queen Street. By the late 1750s he had befriended Erasmus Darwin – grandfather of Charles – at Lichfield and Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. By 1764 the three men had formed the nucleus of the Lunar Society, a powerhouse of scientific thought and innovation which drove the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. He also worked closely with James Ferguson and Benjamin Franklin.

Whitehurst was a gifted mechanician and made clocks of all descriptions, many of a very advanced type, not to mention barometers, pyrometers, thermometers and numerous other types of instrument. His clocks are renowned for their fine tolerances, standardized parts and good quality materials. He also devised improved methods of heating and ventilation of houses, factories, conservatories and hospitals, as well as pioneering the first truly modern flushing lavatories for the 2nd Duke of Newcastle at Clumber in 1774. Thereafter he also served as Stamper of the Money Weights at the Royal Mint, developed an instrument to measure 100ths of a second and wrote a thesis advocating the universal introduction of standard (and decimal) measurements. He also wrote a pioneering work on vulcanology and geology, An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1776) being in consequence elected FRS in 1778. He died at his London home in February 1788 leaving his Derby business in the hands of his nephew, John Whitehurst II.

Whitehurst pioneered both the wheel and angle barometer as well as making a variety of stick and other types. The angle barometers were, however, undoubtedly his pi�ces de r�sistance, and before the emergence of the present example, only 24 by him were known, of which at least one has subsequently been lost and another four are currently untraced. Of these only 11 are dated.

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If you are wondering what such an instrument might have cost in 1757, Whitehurst’s ex-apprentice John Stenson was charging a reasonably modest �1-11s-3d for similar instruments in 1797.

The date identified the barometer as the second earliest instrument by Whitehurst to have the 0 to 60 scale, which made it of national importance. Whitehurst wrote to Boulton in 1757 offering to make him a barometer, but there’s no way of telling if this rather plain instrument is that one. To find it in an ordinary house in Borrowash might lead one to suspect that it had come from a sale at a local country house such as Hopwell, Chaddesden or Risley.

I estimated the barometer at �5,000 to �8,000, but warned James Lewis that I thought it would comfortably exceed �10,000. In the event it sold for �22,000, after fierce bidding by telephone and internet, to a bidder in the room.

These events are remarkably rare, though, and another Whitehurst angle barometer is unlikely to appear in short order. Nevertheless, perhaps readers ought to check behind their wardrobes – just in case!

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