The reassuring tick-ing and tock-ing in The British Clockmaker’s workshop evokes a quasi-paradox of horology: There is a palpable timelessness about a meticulously crafted clock.
In the shop, the ostensibly ageless timepieces, some of which are hundreds of years old, convey a sense of immutability, even as they are designed to track the continuous, unstoppable passage of time.
Horology, for those not in the know, refers to the study of time, and in particular to the science of time’s measurement and the engineering of timepieces that do the measuring.
But if you ask Ray and Richard Bates — the father and son team at The British Clockmaker in Newfane, Vt. — horology is as at least as much an art as it is science. Richard, for his part, is reluctant even to refer to their work as a “trade,” being strongly committed to a vision of horology as a unique kind of craft, akin to imaginative engineering.
Ray, the elder Bates, is very clear about what motivated him to pursue horology professionally. He wanted, in short, “To be in control. To be [his] own boss, and to be able to work to [his] standard of craftsmanship and not that of an employer.”
With his vision in place, Bates started The British Clockmaker in London in 1957 with seed money earned by teaching. More than half a century later, the Bates family has grown The British Clockmaker into an extraordinary American institution. The Bates’ maintain an international reach, and occupy a highly respected position in their niche, being viewed as a leading authority on antique clock restoration in the world of horology.
A native of Scotland, the elder Bates bears a long and impressive pedigree in the timekeeping world. He’s a Qualified Member of the British Horological Institute and has been admitted into The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, which ranks among the oldest craftsmen’s guilds in the world. The Worshipful Company harkens back to a time when guild members were licensed by the crown to seek out and destroy non-guild clocks and/or any timepieces that failed to meet the Queen’s punctilious standards.
The expertise of both father and son extends beyond clockwork.
While clocks unsurprisingly dominate The British Clockmaker’s shelves and work benches, the expertise of both father and son extends beyond clockwork. The Bates duo also work, for instance, on marine chronometers, barometers and all manner of antique automata that work by cog, gear, pinion and pendula. Together the Bates’ convey a vivid and tangible sense of know-how, accompanied by their fastidious commitment to precision and quality.
The pair embody Ray’s self-described craft ethic: “Never compromise, and always work to a standard of quality and never a price.”
As a result, there is simply no mistaking the Bates’ reverence for horology and craft. The men use terms like “butchery” while speaking passionately about the perils brought to bear on unfortunate timepieces by untutored, careless hobbyists and “tinkerers.”
Such off-the-cuff observations reveal another surprising aspect of the craft — and one central to the Bates’ philosophy of horology: Clock repair and restoration necessarily engages the craftsman in a kind of imaginative forensic analysis. Well-made clocks, as William Paley famously observed in the late 18th century, embody paradigmatic evidence of intelligent design. One cannot observe the inner workings of an analogue timepiece without assuming that it was produced by an intelligent craftsman.
The Bates’ approach to antique restoration — true restoration, as opposed to patchwork repair — thus involves them in imaginatively recreating the design space that was envisioned by a clock’s creator. It requires, to use a memorable metaphor offered by Ray, “touching the hand of the maker.”
The implication: Imposing new design elements on a clock in order to hurry a repair or to otherwise suit one’s own purposes amounts to so much butchery and slapdash jerry-rigging of a precision instrument with its own history and heredity. But this is not to say that there’s no room for creativity or innovation in restoration work.
In fact, it’s apparently another hallmark of the delightful obscurity of the horological craft that remarkable exaptations are often necessary. Richard notes, for instance, that “reaching outside the box” is regularly required in order to find tools and methods that meet the singular and at times unprecedented demands of clock restoration. He relates, for example, how he procured a high-powered, tri-ocular microscope from an ear, nose and throat physician for use in assessing fine-grained damage and administering appropriate fixes.
Apparently, dental drills also come in handy.
At all events, time has always been an asset to Ray Bates. With more than half a century of time precisely measured and behind him, and with his son Richard now also a master horologist, The British Clockmaker is poised to keep crafting, repairing and restoring clocks indefinitely.
For more information, contact Ray and Richard Bates of The British Clockmaker in Newfane, Vt., at thebritishclockmaker.com.
Michael Ferreira writes from Brattleboro. He enjoys writing about literature, philosophy, people and places. Feel free to get in touch: email@example.com.