Sundials are back in style, with contemporary makers creating beautiful new versions of these time-honoured devices.
Words by Damon Syson.
For more than 250 years, Goodwood’s sundial has observed proceedings in the Stable Yard – once purely equestrian, latterly also automotive – from its vantage point on the octagonal clock turret. One of around 6,500 antique sundials remaining around the UK, the black and gold dial, inscribed with the words “Non Sine Lumine” (Not Without Light), dates back to 1760, a time when no grand country estate was complete without an elegant astronomical instrument in pride of place.
In simple terms, a sundial is a device that allows us to determine the time of day using the position of the sun – by means of a “gnomon”, which casts a shadow onto a dial-plate, indicating the hour. It’s no accident, of course, that the latter part of the 18th century was the golden age of the sundial. This was the peak of the Enlightenment, when science, mathematics and rational thought had come to dominate the minds of the educated elite. Sundials came into vogue as the study of gnomonics, first developed by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, grew in popularity, only to fall into decline as affordable modes of timekeeping became more widely available.
Bronze armillary sphere by David Harber (davidharber.co.uk)
Today, despite the ubiquity of wristwatches and smartphones, sundials and other gnomonic devices have staged a comeback, with contemporary models once again gracing the grounds of elegant homes and country house hotels. A wave of makers creating bespoke sculptural versions of these ancient instruments has sprung up, servicing our growing fascination for what we might call “natural time”.
In the UK, the leading name in this field is David Harber. The Oxfordshire-based maker has incorporated sundials into water features and even constructed an entire woodland henge for one client, but the design he is best known for is the armillary sphere, an instrument first used in ancient times – notably by Ptolemy of Alexandria – to model the movement of the planets around the Earth. Harber describes these mystical globes as a “beautiful marriage of art and science” – for while they must adhere to certain mathematical constraints, they are equally prized for their decorative qualities.
Harber began creating sundials 25 years ago, after a friend showed him an armillary sphere that so enraptured him, he immediately began constructing one for himself – later selling it to the actor Jeremy Irons. Working in bronze, corten steel, glass, marble and highly polished marine-grade stainless steel, he has collaborated with award-winning garden designers at the Chelsea Flower Show, created monumental pieces for public spaces – including the new airport at Jeddah – and been commissioned to make sundials for countless homes around the world, including four private islands.
Garden obelisk made with marine-grade mirror-polished stainless steel
The appeal of gnomonic devices, he says, is simple and visceral: the more frenetic and hyperconnected modern life becomes, the more they offer a moment of calm reflection, an opportunity to press pause and consider our place in the universe. “That inexorable movement of the shadow,” he muses, “is actually very cathartic, very humbling.”
They also represent continuity, a kind of monumental permanence, which explains why Harber is frequently commissioned to create bespoke designs to commemorate weddings and birthdays. “There’s no better way to mark a moment in time,” he says, “than with something time-related. You can have them engraved with personal statements, poems or your grandchildren’s handwriting. And if, say, your exact time of birth was 3pm on September 4th, I can design something that lights up at that exact moment with the sun’s rays.”
Crafting durable legacy pieces like the venerable sundial in Goodwood’s Stable Yard, is therefore of paramount importance. “Early on in my career,” Harber recalls, “I was asked to restore a sundial on a beautiful old house in Kent. It had quietly stood there for 500 years, looking down on love, war, famine, pestilence and everything else the owners of the house had been through. I thought to myself, ‘I want everything we make to last that long – to have that same resonance.’”
This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.