Sotheby's, Masterpieces from the Time Museum, 2 December 1999, New York, lot 44
Four or five astronomical watches of this type by Margetts are known, together with two large tripod mounted timepieces (nos. 341 & 342). The late Dr George Daniels made a detailed examination of the Royal Institution’s astronomical watch, Margetts no. 311, and published an illustrated article in Antiquarian Horology (No. 6, Vol. 6, March 1970). Within this article Daniels notes that, compared to Margetts's marine timepieces, the "astronomical watches reveal an entirely different philosophy. Beautifully made and finished, they are fine examples of the art of the 18th century English horologist." Two unnumbered examples of these astronomical watches which are earlier than the present watch may be found in the British Museum, one is lacking its case whilst the other is in a plain gold case. The fact that the present watch is numbered '1' and has a fine and highly decorated outer case would suggest that this was the first watch of this type to be issued and sold by Margetts. Indeed, the dials to the two examples in the British museum are slightly different to the present watch, neither having an aperture for moon age to the centre but, instead, the moon age is calibrated to the edge of the tidal dial.
It is not certain for whom these astronomical watches were intended, F. J. Britten in his book “Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers”, suggested that they were made as presentation pieces for captains within the East India Company. However, as George Daniels wrote: “It should be remembered that in the late 18th century navigation was a hotly discussed and fashionable scientific subject. The motions of the heavenly bodies are basic to the subject and Margetts was, no doubt, astute enough to realise that watches would appeal to those gentlemen of scientific bent who could afford to indulge their fancy with an expensive oracle” (Antiquarian Horology, No. 6, Vol. 6, March 1970, p. 351).
An obituary written in 1806, a year after Margetts's death and reproduced in Jonathan Betts's new book, Marine Chronometers at Greenwich, gives an interesting account of the watchmaker's life. Margetts was born in 1748 in the parish of Old Woodstock, Oxfordshire, his father (John Margetts, d. 1763) was a wheelright. At the age of 14 the young George was apprenticed to his brother who was also a wheelright. Prior to this, George had been educated at school where he had shown particular skill at mathematics. At the age of 18, Margetts is said to have stated that he produced a machine that "exhibited the different motions of the earth" and this was followed by a clock which exhibited "the diurnal motion of the earth, the progress of the zodiac, the spring and neap tides, with the revolution of the seasons." The obituary continues that it was this clock which led to his patronage by the Duke of Marlborough who appears to have sponsored his transfer to London and admission to watchmaking at the age of 23, perhaps as an apprentice or journeyman. Margetts was made free of the Clockmakers’ Company by redemption in 1779. Margetts was a petitioner to the Board of Longitude on several occasions, with the goal to secure funds for his various projects that related to finding Longitude and improvements in astronomy. The Board did grant him some funding as did the East India Company. The latter he supplied with tables to assist navigators. Margetts is best remembered for his astronomical watches and eight-day chronometers. At the end of June 1804, Margetts began to have some form of breakdown, he died at home the same year having spent some time in St. Luke’s lunatic asylum. For further information on Margetts: Jonathan Betts, Marine Chronometers at Greenwich, OUP, 2017, pp.230-236.
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