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Thomas Tompion 1639-1713
Mr Tompion, of London, one of the most eminent persons for making clocks and watches that have been produced in the last age, dyed last week. Indeed he was the most famous and skillfull person at this art in the whole world...
So wrote Thomas Hearn on 27 November 1713 (1) and nearly three centuries later most would agree with his sentiments. Tompion's reputation has if anything grown with the passing years and few would question his title as 'The Father of English Clockmaking'.
Given his illustrious career, remarkably little is known about Tompion's beginnings. He was born in Ickfield Green, Bedfordshire and was presumably brought up as a blacksmith like his father and grandfather. It is not known to whom he was apprenticed but by September 1671 he was in London and in 1674 he was made Free of the Company by Redemption and set up in premises at the sign of the Dial and Three Crowns in Water Lane. That same year he met the great experimental physicist Robert Hooke. Tompion made a quadrant for Hooke and this appears to have been the turning point of his career; from obscurity he entered into friendship (albeit an erratic one) with one of the foremost scientists of the day. The following year Tompion supported Hooke in his claim to having invented the spiral balance spring before Christian Huygens, and in doing so came to the attention of Charles II.
Following its foundation in 1675 Tompion was commissioned to make two clocks for the Greenwich Observatory, which he did in 1676. It was a remarkable rise and his future success must have seemed assured. Over the next several years both his business and his premises at Water Lane grew apace as Tompion took on an increasing number of apprentices and extended his workshops (in 1684 he claims to be repairing and altering his house when asked to be a Steward of the Clockmakers' Company). In a rate assessment of 1685 Tompion's household numbers nineteen and he would have employed a number of non-resident journeymen also. And he was not cheap: 'He charged 10 pounds sterling for the least of his clocks, whereas one could get them from other clockmakers for 6 or 7 pounds'. (2)
Tompion received a great deal of patronage from William III (1689-1702) for whom he made perhaps his most famous the clock, the Mostyn Tompion, (British Museum). Indeed, so much business did Tompion receive that upon the King's death he owed the clockmaker the huge sum of £564. Tompion's fame was such that his portrait was painted by the Court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller (see lot 91) and his name crops up in a contemporary stage play, The Lancashire Witches by Thomas Shadwell (1681).
By 1691 Tompion had been elected an Assistant in the Clockmakers' Company and subsequently his career progressed; from 1700 he was made Warden and in 1703 he became Master.
Although he remained a childless bachelor, in the horological sense Tompion undoubtedly founded a dynasty. George Graham (1673-1751) joined him in 1695 and the following year married his niece. The men became partners in 1710 and upon Tompion's death in 1713 Graham inherited the business. He in turn took as an apprentice the brilliant Thomas Mudge (1715-1794), who would in due course promote himself as successor to Graham (see footnote to lot 81).
(1) Quoted by R.W. Symonds, Thomas Tompion, His Life and Work, Batsford, 1951, p.13.
(2) H.L. Benthem, 1694, quoted by Symonds, op.cit, p.111.