Abraham-Louis Breguet: The English Connection

By Breguet Blog
January 24th, 2024


THE CLOCKMAKERS’ MUSEUM in the Science Museum, London, is currently hosting a special display of clocks and watches by Abraham-Louis Breguet. The priceless antiques on display were either originally supplied to the monarchy or later owned by the nobility. Illustrious owners included George III, George IV, John Arnold, Comte de Flahault, Lord Trafford, Sir David Salomons, and Lord Harris.

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The ‘English Connection’ owes much to the fabled collections of Sir David Salomons and the 5th Lord Harris of Belmont. Thanks to an unrivalled passion for Breguet’s creations and their meticulous efforts toward preservation, these collectors and early conservators managed to secure Breguet’s legacy in a way few have done. Salomons is particularly noteworthy for his comprehensive catalogue of Breguet, published in 1921, the first of its kind. Later, Lord Harris built a smaller, no less exceptional, private collection of original works by the master. The current exhibition has been greatly enhanced by generous loans from private collectors, the British Museum, the British Royal Collection and the Clockmakers’ Museum.

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Breguet’s client list reads as a who’s who of Georgian England and this exhibition serves as a fine introduction to his English connection. Breguet is known to have visited London in the late 1700s and forged a life-long friendship with John Arnold, of Arnold & Son fame – Europe’s leading clock and watchmaker and joint inventor of the chronometer. When the Duc d’Orleans showed a clock fashioned by Breguet to John Arnold, Arnold was so impressed that he asked Breguet to accept his son, John Roger, as an apprentice. So great was the mutual admiration and respect between these two giants of horology that Breguet had previously sent his own son, Antoine-Louis (born 1776), to study under Arnold.1

The following covers some of the key objects on display but leaves others to be discovered for those able to visit the exhibition in person.

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Breguet at the Clockmakers’ Museum, in the Science Museum on Exhibition Road, London SW7.

Introducing the exhibit is a bronze bust of Abraham-Louis Breguet, a formidable work of art, possibly after Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) and thought to have been commissioned to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Breguet’s death at the Musée Galliera exhibition in 1923. This is followed by an early subscription pamphlet, Souscription de Montres or Watch Subscription, issued by Breguet in 1797 to promote a subscription for a less expensive pocket watch designed for civilian use.

Complimenting the prospectus is just such an example of an original subscription watch, Breguet No. 3426, a plain gold case with white enamel dial with secret signature and single blued-steel hand at centre. This watch was sold on 29th December 1819 to Wayer Fréres & Cie. for 882 francs.

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Bronze bust on loan by Charles Frodsham & Co., London (l), an early subscription pamphlet by Breguet (m) and souscription pocket watch (r) Breguet No. 3426, both loaned by private collectors.

Breguet No. 4633 Pendule de Voyage2 petite

This ‘small travel pendulum’ is indeed petite, measuring 16.5cms in height (including handle) by a width of 9.2cms and depth of 6.7cms. The travel clock features an eight-day movement, half-quarter repeating and alarm mechanisms and an annual calendar, set in an ornate gilt bronze, rectangular case by Louis François Jeannest (1781-1856). The clock is accompanied by its original red leather travel case that opens from the top but also offers a convenient slide in front so the dial may be observed without unpacking the clock. A hidden compartment in the base stores the winding key. The clock was sold on 3rd July 1833 to Comte de Pembroke for 4,128 francs.

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Breguet No. 4633 is a consummate example of filigree work executed with flourish and set to a modern, legible dial. Lent by a private collector.

The Royal Collection

This collection includes two triumphant examples of Breguet’s work once owned by the Royal Family of Great Britain. The first item is a lavish gold pocket watch owned by George III equipped with some fine characteristics. The second is an exceptional example of a sympathique mantel clock now owned by HM King Charles III.

Breguet No. 1297 Garde temps, échappement à tourbillon

This spectacular gold four-minute tourbillon watch was made for King George III (1738-1820) in 1808. The King had a great interest in the arts and sciences which he supported fervently. On 29th June 1808, the watch was sent to Mr. Recordon in London Pour Le Rod d’Angleterre for 4,800 francs. George III possessed sound scientific knowledge and his extensive collection of scientific instruments were kept at his private observatory at Kew.

The movement is set in a gold case with reeded bezel and empire-style coin edging. The gold engine-turned dial consists of extremely fine Clou de Paris guilloché and sunburst patterns for the smaller sub-dials. A thermometer is placed at twelve o’clock and a 35-hour power reserve at six o’clock. Continuous seconds run at eleven o’clock and stop-seconds at one o’clock. The stoppable seconds are driven by the tourbillon and may be stopped and started at will, independent of the watch train. A four-minute tourbillon graces the magisterial watch, providing a stately pulse. The long minute-hand is a deft touch tracing the outer minute ring. The back is festooned with a glittering sunburst pattern consisting of radiating lines with a removable cartouche at centre, engraved with a crown, oak-leaf civic crown and enamelled Royal cypher GR.

The watch later left the Royal collection and may have passed to the King’s son, the Duke of Sussex, a keen collector himself. Watch No. 1297 was possibly sold as ‘Lot 51 – A gold chronometer by Breguet with his celebrated Tourbillon escapement‘ at the Christie & Manson auction under the headline: ‘The Celebrated and Unique Collection of Regulators, Clocks, Chronometers & Watches, The Property of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Sussex, London, 4th July 1843’. [Lent by a private collector.]

Breguet No. 1297 © Sotheby's London
Reverse and obverse of George III’s watch and a view of the four-minute tourbillon by Breguet.

Breguet No. 666 Pendule sympathique

This Royal sympathique is in style the most restrained of the five examples seen by the author. The beautiful combination of mahogany and gilt metal and the simple style of the case give it a quiet dignity that has a special charm of its own.

— George Daniels, The Art of Breguet

This sublime example of Breguet’s charming invention of a synchroniser – a clock which sets and regulates an associated watch inserted into a cradle on top – remains one of the supreme mysteries showcasing the enchantment Breguet was capable of.

The term ‘sympathique‘ was chosen by Breguet to literally denote sympathy as the larger clock ‘sympathises’ with the smaller watch to bring it into harmony with the correct time of day. This process would usually happen at night when the watch is placed into its cradle to be regulated or wound at the same time. It is a technical feat cloaked in great beauty, however one that came at a price. Complex and costly to make, Abraham-Louis sold only five examples, all different, prior to his death in 1823. His son Antoine-Louis sold only one, in 1830. All were bought by kings or princes.

This clock and its companion watch were purchased by the Prince Regent, later George IV, in August 1814 at a cost of 11,500 francs for his London residence at Carlton House. It is part of the Royal Collection and has been kindly lent by His Majesty the King.3

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Two works by Breguet capped by an oil painting commissioned by George III (1738-1820) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), completed between 1780-81.

Clock No. 666 has a mahogany glazed case with chased and gilt bronze fittings, a clock with silver dial and watch with enamel dial. The case “stands 25.4 centimetres high and is 16 centimetres wide” (Daniels, Art of Breguet, p. 89) but for the whole object the dimensions are 33.3cms high x 17.5cms wide x 17.5cms deep. A generous brass handle is provided for ease of carrying.

The clock has a silver engine-turned dial with subsidiary seconds at six o’clock and a small disc at centre for setting the time of synchronisation with Breguet hands in blued-steel. The 50-hour power reserve is wound by a unique ratchet lever underneath the case. At the top of the mahogany case, is a cradle to take simple watch No. 507. Interestingly, the reference of the simple watch was originally No. 721 but by the time the unit was delivered it had been re-numbered 507 which is the number engraved on the watch.

Breguet deliberately chose a transparent method to present his creation. Gilt-framed glass panels permit the observer to see the ethereal construction of the movement as the main dial floats inside the case. No. 666 could easily be described as a skeleton clock with its beautiful display of the helical gold spring, Breguet’s constant force escapement and two-armed compensation balance with recessed screws all mounted on a column inside the case. The cradle for the simple watch has a pin projecting at centre into the band of the watch at a preset time each day. This is the release mechanism for the sympathique synchronisation set using the small disc on the main dial.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023
Breguet No. 666, executed with elan. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

A decorative silver disc inside the case, artfully located behind the mount for the simple watch reads, Breguet et Fils No. 666. The gilt plaque on the base reads, Echapement Libre à force Constante Par Breguet.

The simple watch consists of a 60mm diameter, plain gold case with white enamel dial signed Breguet at six o’clock. The watch is engraved No. 507 on the cuvette with Breguet hands in blued-steel. The movement is of L’Epine calibre with single going barrel, ruby cylinder escapement, three-armed plain balance with parachute suspension and blued-steel spiral spring with regulator.

The wonderful aesthetic of glazed mahogany with round columns, gilt metal work and mouldings that frame the glass panels coalesce into a symphony of understated grandeur. The Royal sympathique is unique as Breguet never produced another.

The Arnold Connection

On display is a rare letter dated 1791, in which John Roger Arnold expresses his disappointment at missing ‘Breguet’s recent visit’. Mr. Arnold hopes to see him in the near future at M. DuMergue’s house, a close friend of Breguet and one of his agents in London. He also requests Breguet to bring with him “the little bird”, most likely a singing-bird automaton.4 [Lent by a private collector.]

The second item is a pocket chronometer, Breguet No. 169, Garde temps, pierres au rouage (jewelled train).5 Silver engine-turned case by Tavernier and dial by Michaud, 59mm diameter by 23mm thick. Breguet hands in blued-steel by Thevenon with seconds at six o’clock.

No. 169 was originally made by John Arnold and included a fusée. The signature John Arnold London Invt. et Fecit No 11 is still visible. Breguet had removed the cock, balance and escapement to replace them with a one-minute tourbillon having a Peto cross detent escapement. This chronometer is most memorable for its inscription: “IER RÉGULATEUR A TOURBILLON DE BREGUET, RÉUNI A UN DES PREMIERS OUVRAGES D’ARNOLD. HOMMAGE DE BREGUET, A LA MÉMOIRE RÉVÉRÉE D’ARNOLD, OFFERT A SON FILS. AN 1808.” It means: “The first tourbillon regulator by Breguet incorporated in one of the first works of Arnold. Breguet’s homage to the revered memory of Arnold. Presented to his son in the year 1808”. The watch survives as a fascinating collaboration between two giants of horology. [Lent by the British Museum.]

The third item is a marine chronometer, Breguet No. 104, Montre Marine. The earliest marines were Nos. 104, 105 and 106; all costing 2,000 francs. This particular example was sold on 9th April 1818 to Mr. Baudin. Captain Charles Baudin (1784-1854) later became an Admiral in the French navy and most likely purchased the marine chronometer for use as a scientific instrument in a maritime environment.

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Letter to Breguet from John Roger Arnold (l), Breguet No. 169 (m) and marine chronometer Breguet No. 104 (r).

The chronometer is fitted into an inner square mahogany box gimballed inside an outer rectangular mahogany case with a sliding lid. The inner box measures 16.5cms x 16.5cms x 11cms; the outer case is 30.5cms x 29.2cms x 29.2cms. The chronometer has a full-plate movement with fusée, chains and two barrels, with Earnshaw’s spring detent escapement and a 40-hour power reserve.

Breguet No. 104 has a silvered dial with asymmetrical chapter ring and a large seconds display at six o’clock. A power reserve between 10 and 11 o’clock is numbered 0 – 20 – 40. Breguet hands in blued-steel. Signed Breguet et Fils and No. 104. A handsome example of a rare and early marine chronometer by Breguet, presented in a simple mahogany case with brass fittings. [Lent by a private collector.]

The Legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet

One of the earliest and least known collectors of Breguet was the Rev. W. Bentinck L. Hawkins (1802-1894). Although little is known about the life of Rev. Hawkins, his legacy as a collector of fine art is well-documented courtesy of auctioneers Messrs. Christie, Manson & Woods. The works were auctioned off in two parts: Catalogue of the Collection of the Pictures and Drawings of the Rev. W. Bentinck L. Hawkins and John W. Workman, Esq., on Monday, March 4, 1895; and, Catalogue of the Remaining Portion of the Valuable Collection of Objects of Art of the Rev. W. Bentinck L. Hawkins, on Monday, July 8, 1895. The latter included a substantial collection of watches by Breguet, more than two dozen pocket watches, ladies’ watches, repeating watches and most memorably, a pocket chronometer, Breguet No. 169 featured above.

Shortly thereafter Sir David Salomons Bt (1851-1925) built on the legacy of Rev. Hawkins by publishing his meticulous catalogue of his own collection of works by Breguet in 1921. The first of its kind.

A most interesting display of watch designs by James Ferguson Cole (1798-1880) follows with a selection of four small design cards from circa 1825-1875. Based in central London, Cole was an inventor of complicated clocks and watches . He also specialised in Breguet and produced watches in Breguet’s style, adding his own designs and workmanship. Cole was able to service and repair Breguet watches and his business card read:

“James Ferguson Cole, Inventor and Manufacturer of Marine and Pocket Chronometers, improved Repeating and other watches. 3 New Bond St., James Ferguson Cole engages to repair in a perfect manner the genuine watches of Mons. Breguet however complex or delicate.”

The sample drawings, generously loaned by a private collector, are drawn on both sides showing dial and movement layouts for a variety of watches. The drawings depict calendar, equation and moon-phase indications and studies of various escapements including self-winding movements. There are 57 cards in total measuring 45mm x 60mm and 60mm x 90mm, all reminiscent of Breguet’s work. The drawings are so well executed that they could easily be mistaken for CAD drawings and their impact is remarkably fresh to this day.

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A selection of watch designs by James Ferguson Cole, lent by a private collector; and Breguet No. 3629 Pendule portique, lent by the British Museum.

Next to the drawings of Cole is a second example of a travel clock, Breguet’s No. 3629 Pendule portique, sold on 7th October 1822 to Colonel Cooke for 4,800 francs. Pendule portique means portal clock, a name Breguet gave to clocks of this shape.

The dial and hands exude Breguet DNA. A generous silver engine-turned dial set within an engine-turned gilt plate. The outer chapter ring, showing hours and minutes, frames three subsidiary dials: age-and-phase of the moon at nine o’clock; seconds at twelve o’clock; and, alarm-setting at three o’clock. Breguet hands in blued-steel throughout except for a gold hand for the alarm setting. Breguet signature in an oval cartouche. Apertures below the dial show the day, date, month and year.

The movement is spring-driven and has a lever escapement with bimetallic balance and blued-steel overcool balance spring. It has a single train fusée indirectly wound via a wolf’s tooth gearing. A half-quarter repeating mechanism on a double-ended gong with drum calendar work below the dial that automatically adjusts for the leap years. There is also a separately wound alarm mechanism. Eight-day power reserve. The movement is signed Breguet et Fils/ Hgrs de la Marine Royale/ No. 3629.

The clock has a silver case with a hinged back door and silver carrying chains. Fine gold chains to the side and base for the alarm and repeating trains. A waistcoat-style chain at six o’clock is fitted with two gold dust-stoppers at each end covering the winding and hand-setting squares. Its dimensions are: 15.5cms in height x 12.1cms x in width x 6cms in depth. It is accompanied by a fitted leather travelling case.

Breguet No. 3629 was purchased by the British Museum from Mrs. C. K. Prestige in 1969. It is currently on loan from the British Museum.6

The exhibition includes several other works by Breguet on loan from the Harris (Belmont) Charity and a number of private collectors. This article has tried to cover some of the standouts from the exhibition. The English Connection serves as a window onto the enormous talents of Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose contributions to horology remain unsurpassed.

All those who love horology and anyone with a general interest in the arts is encouraged to visit: Abraham-Louis Breguet: The English Connection.

For the exhibition catalogue by Andrew Crisford F.S.A. please click on the following link: The Exhibits.

The exhibition runs until 8th September 2024. Admission is free.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Breguet London and Mr Stuart Kerr, Boutique Manager, for giving us a personal tour of this magnificent exhibition. Special thanks also to The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and Science Museum for having made this unique display possible.

Notes

All URLs correct at time of publication.

1 For a more detailed look at Breguet’s life, his personal and business relationships, please see the following article: Biography of a visionary artist: Abraham-Louis Breguet, horologist and inventor.

2 A term used by Breguet to describe a small portable clock of rectangular shape. Although the portable clock is commonly referred to as a ‘carriage clock’ and was not claimed to have been invented by Breguet, his seemingly effortless contributions in this field include many masterpieces. One of the first was purchased on 24th April 1798 by General Napoleon Bonaparte for 1,500 francs and put to immediate use both as a travel and ‘officer’s clock’ in a military environment. Breguet No. 178, also known as the Napoleon Carriage Clock, now resides in the Swiss National Museum.

Breguet sold several travel clocks – as well as sympathique clocks, which are larger in size – in his lifetime and the firm would go on to excel in creating such exquisite works including:

  • The King of Naples Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 179, sold to Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and Sicily in 1804 for 4,000 francs;
  • The Baron de Blome Breguet, Breguet No. 2516, sold to Baron de Blome on 29th January 1811 for 2,000 francs;
  • Breguet et Fils, No. 2678, Paris, 1811, now in the Frick Collection;
  • The Queen of Naples Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 2655, sold to Caroline Murat on 18th March 1812 for 4,000 francs;
  • The Gerugross Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 2898, sold to Monsieur Gerugross on 30th September 1816 for 4,000 francs;
  • The Prince Shcherbatov Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 3344, sold to Prince Mikhailo Mikhailovich Shcherbatov on 20th August 1819 for 2,400 francs. It was returned to the prince in exchange for another timepiece and later sold to General Yermolov on 27th April 1821;
  • The Labanoff/Downshire Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 2963, sold to Madame la Marquise de Downshire on 6th October 1821 for 4,800 francs;
  • The Prince Golitsyn Breguet, Breguet et Fils, No. 3358, sold to Prince Sergei Mikhailovich Golitsyn on 31st March 1826 for 3,600 francs;
  • The Princess Bagration Breguet, Breguet No. 4768, sold to Princess Catherine Bagration on 26th October 1837 for 3,500 francs;
  • The Marquise de Bethisy Breguet, Breguet No. 1559, sold to La Marquise Charles de Bethisy, née Adèle-Mathilde-Emmanuelle de Guernonval D’esquelbecq, on 6th May 1878 for 4,000 francs;
  • The Grand Duke Alexis of Russia Breguet, Breguet No. 1745, sold to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on 31st January 1894 for 3,000 francs.

3 Sympathique No. 666 is part of the Royal Collection Trust which manages the Royal Collection. It is one of the world’s foremost art collections and its contents can often be viewed by the public in Royal Houses and various museums. The official link to this particular clock can be found here: https://www.rct.uk/collection/2861/the-sympathique-clock.

4 The letter reads:

“Sir,

I was very sad to miss your company and that of M. DuMergue last Sunday, but I hope to have the pleasure next Friday at M. DuMergue. My father wishes that you would have the pleasure of coming to our house in Cornhill on the coming Friday morning and to bring with you the little bird, as he really wishes to show it to a few ladies, his friends.

In the pleasure of seeing you,
Yours sincerely with the utmost respect,
Your friend,
John R. Arnold”

5 Breguet No. 169 is currently on loan from the British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1958-1201-1848.

6 Breguet No. 3629 is currently on loan from the British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1969-0303-3.

Bibliography

https://www.breguet.com

https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/clockmakers-museum

BREGUET, Emmanuel, Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking, USA: Prestel (2015). ISBN 978-3791354675.

DANIELS, George, The Art of Breguet, Switzerland: Sotheby’s Publications (1986). ISBN 0-85667-004-9.

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: Kent and Sussex Courier Company (1,000 copies printed). Illustrated with over 150 photographic reproductions & other parts (1921).

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Supplement. Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: Kent and Sussex Courier Company (1,000 copies printed). Illustrated with over 40 photographic reproductions (1921).

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