Day 265 in the Corona House – The sign of four

Paula Trewick has banjaxed my weekend.

There I was planning for a couple of days of tidying, decluttering and rearranging between baking a cake and going for a bike ride when bibbady bobbady boo, Paula Trewick kicks of fourgate and my weekend got whacked so far out of kilter it might as well be Tuesday.

For those unfamiliar with ‘fourgate‘, it started yesterday as a simple question about my newly acquired kitchen clock. Paula raised the QI point of why IIII should be the chosen representation for the number four rather than the more traditional use of IV standard roman numerology. So, yesterday’s blog post sought to answer that question (see yesterday’s post) and there have been, metaphorically speaking, baying mobs of pitchfork wielding ruffians pursuing me ever since.

Now my weekend has to include fact checking, researching, blogging time to say nothing of straightening my kitchen clock. Thanks to yesterday’s post, Peter Stebbing (who should have better things to be doing in Tasmania) noticed it was hanging at a more than usually jaunty angle. I no longer have enough hours available in the day and consequently the weekend, so Paula Trewick, I’m blaming you.

Don’t you know the importance of accuracy?

Now dear reader we take a slight detour to consider the socially acceptable and refined options open to you should you find the veracity of my content questionable. If you spot an error or worse still a falsehood, how should you go about challenging it? I give you example 1 a London barrister. Let’s for the purposes of today call him Brent who, like me could have an argument in a phone box and shares my love of pedantry as a blood sport. Not for the first time, we found we differed on a point. In this case, my third suggestion in yesterday’s post that using IIII reduced wastage when moulding metal figures for clocks. Brent said

‘I suspect, whilst logically neat (and therefore superficially attractive), reason 3 isn’t true. Given it was a manual process, it would be very easy to simply not fill your mould all the way, as required, to avoid waste..

A masterclass, brief, pithy yet balanced with suspicion rather than assertion and making a coherent contrary argument. Contrast this with Mark from Manchester who tweets (I’m tempted to say I rest my case …. but)

That’s a lot of words to say stuff that is all wrong. It was made smart to use IIII after George Airey used it on Big Ben making it popular in London society. He did it on all his clocks.

Now that wasn’t very nice was it boys and girls. I don’t claim to be universally correct (well sometimes I do, but I know I shouldn’t). However, such unrestrained certainty is always something that will grab my attention, particularly when they’re wrong. I don’t typically go into full rebuttal mode, but after thanking Mark for his clearly honestly held belief, we end our brief discussion of online manners and here are a few points for the jury (readership) to consider – did I lead you astray?

Big Ben with no hour markers

Firstly, I come from a long line of pedants and must point out that Sir George Airey was far too busy being Astronomer Royal at the time ‘The Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster’ was installed to worry much about whether IIII or IV was used. Nobody has placed any markings on Big Ben which as we know is the bell used by the clock to strike and chime. The clock face is part of what was originally called ‘The Clock Tower’ in the original commission. This was later known as St Stephen’s Tower before being renamed The Queen Elizabeth Tower in 2012 as part of the commemoration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

The suggestion that to misquote the Sun it was London Society what done it is to miss the point that IIII has been commonplace on clocks and indeed in literature for at least half a millennium we can trace before the Houses of Parliament were built (in their current form). Louis XIV (or should that be Louis XIIII) instructed his horologists to use the IIII format in the 18th Century. Something tells me he may have set more of the fashion that the early Vctorian London chatterati.

Mark would be wise to employ Dr Google with the search phrase “Forme of Cury” which is a 1390 manuscript explaining the affront to the Roman Catholic church that IV represented on clock faces being an abbreviated form of IVPITER (the Latin version of the Roman God Jupiter). Again, nothing to do with fashionable stirrings in what is now SW1A.

However, lets not speculate on the relative importance of historical figures on fashion. Put those points to one side. Let’s examine the claim that Airey did this on all of his clocks. There are three issues with this suggestion. The first is Sir George Airey didn’t actually make any clocks, though he did commission a few including the Royal Observatory, the old Admiralty buildings and the clock in the turret of St Pauls Cathedral. Where Mark is correct is that all those examples show IIII.

The second is clocks on these scales are not a stock item, they are built to order. Saying a clock is ‘by’ someone didn’t have anything much to do with the face that was eventually put on it. The ‘clock’ refers to the mechanical movement alone, in the examples above all by Edward Dent who was championed and supported by Sir George Airey – something of a repeat customer.

Two London clock faces (The Royal Exchange and Threadneedle St) with movements by Edward Dent

That brings me to my third point and the one which I fear is most damaging to Mark’s suggestion that Airey made the practice popular following his success on the Palace of Westminster.

The Great Clock in The Elizabeth Tower is indeed a Dent movement. However, the face was designed by none other than Augustus Pugin who designed just about everything in the palace from the flying buttresses to the door handles. His design for the clock face is available in the British Museum and was part of the initial commission calling on clock makers to submit their proposals. These designs included every detail down to the length and weight of the hour and minute hands. If you think about it information any horologist would need if his mechanism has to be strong enough to move them. It also contained the minute markings, five minute dividing bars and the hour letterings.

The observant among you will also note the final deficiency in the argument that it was the Great Clock of Westminster that set the trend for IIII – as can clearly be seen in the now restored blue lettering, the clock face uses IV true to Pugin’s original designs.

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